What is Special about Language?: A Coevolutionary Perspective

Roger Cook, University of Missouri
Bond Life Sciences Center 171

Abstract: Language is generally considered the faculty that more than any other sets the human off from all other species, including from other primates, with whom we share many cognitive and social traits. To account for this uniquely human capacity, some (most notably Noam Chomsky) posit a specialized biological system that enables humans to acquire and process language in a generative fashion. My analysis adds to the growing chorus of scholars who reject this idea of an inherited biological system dedicated to language or an innate ability such as a “language instinct.”

In this talk I pursue two lines of inquiry. First, I analyze how language fits into to the uniquely human pattern of producing technology that alters the environment we inhabit and coevolves with us as our culture advances. In this section, I consider the role language played in the coevolutionary process involving enhanced speech and auditory organs, the expansion and neural reorganization of the brain, and the development of representational thinking. The second section posits a deep-seated, isomorphic relation between the organizing principle at work in living organisms and the one that informs the continuing evolution of language. I will argue that the medium of language is a prosthetic extension (in the sense proposed by Marshall McLuhan) of the organizing life force into the external world of culture. As such, it is the is the quintessential technological innovation that has propelled human evolution.

Roger Cook
Roger Cook


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