Neurolinguistic Evolution: BBS Call for Commentators

Stevan Harnad (harnad@PRINCETON.EDU)
Sun, 3 Apr 1994 19:12:07 EDT

This article has been accepted for publication in Behavioral and Brain
Sciences (BBS), an international, interdisciplinary journal providing
Open Peer Commentary on important and controversial current research in
the biobehavioral and cognitive sciences.

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Wendy K. Wilkins
Department of English
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-0302

Jennie Wakefield
Department of Speech and Hearing
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-1908

ABSTRACT: This target article presents a plausible evolutionary
scenario for the emergence of the neural preconditions for language
in the hominid lineage. In pleistocene primate lineages there was a
paired evolutionary expansion of frontal and parietal neocortex
(through certain well-documented adaptive changes associated with
manipulative behaviors) resulting, in ancestral hominids, in an
incipient Broca's region and in a configurationally unique junction
of the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes of the brain (the
POT). On our view, the development of the POT in our ancestors
resulted in the neuroanatomical substrate consistent with the
ability for representations in modality-neutral association cortex
and, as a result of structure-imposing interaction with Broca's
area, the hierarchically structured "conceptual structure." Evidence
from paleoneurology and comparative primate neuroanatomy is used to
argue that Homo habilis (2.5-2 million years ago) was the first
hominid to have the appropriate gross neuroanatomical configuration
to support conceptual structure. We thus suggest that the neural
preconditions for language are met in H. habilis. Finally, we
advocate a theory of language acquisition that uses conceptual
structure as input to the learning procedures, thus bridging the
gap between it and language.

KEYWORDS: biology of language; conceptual structure; evolution;
Homo habilis; language acquisition; neurolinguistics; origin of
language; paleoneurology; preadaptation; sensorimotor feedback

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