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Terrence Deacon -- Language and complexity: Evolution inside out

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Published on Aug 25, 2010

Webcast sponsored by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, and hosted by the Department of Language and Literacy Education and the Faculty of Education as part of the plenary session at the 37th International Systemic Functional Congress, Deacon explains the extravagant complexity of the human language and our competence to acquire it has long posed challenges for natural selection theory. To answer his critics, Darwin turned to sexual selection to account for the extreme development of language. Many contemporary evolutionary theorists have invoked incredibly lucky mutation or some variant of the assimilation of acquired behaviors to innate predispositions in an effort to explain it. Recent evodevo approaches have identified developmental processes that help to explain how complex functional synergies can evolve by Darwinian means. Interestingly, many of these developmental mechanisms bear a resemblance to aspects of Darwin's mechanism of natural selection, often differing only in one respect (e.g. form of duplication, kind of variation, competition/cooperation). A common feature is an interplay between processes of stabilizing selection and processes of relaxed selection at different levels of organism function. These may play important roles in the many levels of evolutionary process contributing to language. Surprisingly, the relaxation of selection at the organism level may have been a source of many complex synergistic features of the human language capacity, and may help explain why so much language

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