Professor Simon Kirby delivered his inaugural lecture entitled "The Language Organism: evolution, culture, and what it means to be human" on 22 March 2011.
For my public Inaugural Lecture, I will be trying to give a broad accessible summary of the importance of some of the recent research in the LEC.
Our species can do something utterly unique in the natural world - a behaviour so transformative that it has reshaped the mechanisms of our own evolution. We are able to take a novel thought and cause another person to share that thought simply by recombining sounds we learned to make as children. Virtually all species communicate, but only humans have this trick called Language.
But where does this unique trait come from? How did it evolve? Why are we the only species that has it? The quest to answer these questions starts in the familiar world of biological evolution. Perhaps we have evolved an "organ" for language, just like other animals have their own specialised biological apparatus. However there is something very peculiar about language that makes such simple answers suspect. In recent years, work pioneered in Edinburgh has demonstrated that language itself is a new kind of evolutionary system -- one we are only just beginning to understand.
In this talk, I will survey the progress made in making sense of this system and what it means for our understanding of language and of ourselves. Along the way we will see how we can study language evolution in the laboratory; what birds and foxes might tell us; and why culture might be changing the way we evolve.