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Biology and Language 2007: An EMBL-EBI Science & Society Symposium

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  • UserWilliam Marslen-Wilson (Chair)
  • ClockThursday 21 June 2007, 13:00-17:00
  • HouseRobinson College.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Alison Meynert.

Human language acquisition depends on biological processes as well as learned behaviour. But how did human language evolve, and how do human babies learn to speak? Language as we know it seems to grow out of innate structures built into our brain. Humans are the only animals to produce a complex, grammatical language that permits intricate representations of the phenomenal world. At the same time, a debate still rages among academics on whether our representational ability stems from our overall biological basis for language or from our generally superior cognitive abilities.

Did human language evolve as a consequence of changes in the ecology of the species, expanded tool use, social organization, or some other evolutionary event? In other words, is language an adaptation process, evolved in response to some selection process, or is it a by-product of the evolution of other brain functions? As we learn more about the brain processes underlying language, it seems increasingly unlikely that a single evolutionary event will explain the emergence of language.

The neural system underpinning human language capacity is enormously complex and encompasses auditory analysis, conceptualization and memory, semantic selection processes, motor control, and many other functions. To a large extent, these processes are likely to have evolved independently from one another. It is therefore much more probable that the evolution of language went through several different adaptive events in early human history.

Exciting results have been published in recent years by researchers pursuing the study of language from different angles: evolutionary and population genetics, evolutionary psychology, comparative cognitive studies, anthropology and linguistics. The aim of this EMBL -EBI Science and Society Symposium is to promote mutual interest, understanding, and dialogue beyond disciplinary boundaries, and to engage members of the general public who are interested in the complex relationships between biology and language.

This symposium will be chaired by William Marslen-Wilson, the Unit Director of the Speech and Language Group, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge. It will consist of three talks, to be followed by a one hour discussion between the audience, the speakers, and the chair.

  • Biolinguistics: From behaviour to circuits to genes – William Tecumseh Fitch, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews
  • From speech to gene – Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, Development Cognitive Neuroscience Unit, Institute of Child Health, London
  • Molecular evolution of FOXP2 , a gene involved in speech and language – Svante Pääbo, Department of Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Registration is free. For more information and to register online, please visit

This talk is part of the EMBL-EBI Science & Society series.

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