Speaker: Professor Michael Corballis, University of Auckland
Title: The origin of language
Michael Corballis is Emeritus Professor, and Fellow of the American Psychological Society and the Royal Society of New Zealand. He is well known for his somewhat controversial theories linking Evolutionary Psychology with modern cognitive neuroscience and theories of origins of cognitive and brain functions, including mental time travel and the origin of language.
According to some archaeologists and linguists, including Noam Chomsky, language is uniquely human and emerged in a single step (the “great leap forward”) within the past 100,000 years. This is profoundly anti-Darwinian. I will argues instead that the evolution of language can be understood in terms of incremental evolution through our primate heritage, and that precursors can be seen in the primate mirror system, mental time travel, and gestural communication in apes. This provides a basis for the evolution of language from gesture to pantomime, with pantomimic gestures increasingly conventionalized and simplified. Vocal gestures (speech) were incorporated to allow the burden of language to be largely compressed from the upper body into the mouth, with increased efficiency. Although manual language persists in sign languages, speech is an early example of miniaturization.