Innateness and culture in the evolution of language

Simon Kirby, Mike Dowman, Thomas L. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

253 Scopus citations


Human language arises from biological evolution, individual learning, and cultural transmission, but the interaction of these three processes has not been widely studied. We set out a formal framework for analyzing cultural transmission, which allows us to investigate how innate learning biases are related to universal properties of language. We show that cultural transmission can magnify weak biases into strong linguistic universals, undermining one of the arguments for strong innate constraints on language learning. As a consequence, the strength of innate biases can be shielded from natural selection, allowing these genes to drift. Furthermore, even when there is no natural selection, cultural transmission can produce apparent adaptations. Cultural transmission thus provides an alternative to traditional nativist and adaptationist explanations for the properties of human languages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5241-5245
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number12
StatePublished - Mar 20 2007
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Bayesian learning
  • Cultural transmission
  • Iterated learning
  • Nativism


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