Simon Kirby


Simon Kirby

Centre for Language Evolution,
University of Edinburgh



The Evolution of Linguistic Structure: where learning, culture and biology meet 

Language is striking in its systematic structure at all levels of description. By exhibiting combinatoriality and compositionality, each utterance in a language does not stand alone, but rather exhibits a network of dependencies on the other utterances in that language. Where does this structure come from? Why is language systematic, and where else might we expect to find this kind of systematicity in nature? In this talk, I will propose a simple hypothesis that systematic structure is the inevitable result of a suite of behaviours being transmitted by iterated learning. Iterated learning is a mechanism of cultural evolution in which behaviours persist by being learned through observation of that behaviour in another individual who acquired it in the same way. I will survey a wide range of lab studies of iterated learning, in which the cultural evolution of sets of behaviours is experimentally recreated. These studies include everything from artificial language learning tasks and sign language experiments, to more abstract behaviours like sequence learning, and have recently even been extended to other species. I will conclude by suggesting that these cultural evolution experiments provide clear predictions about where we should expect to see structure in behaviour, and what form that structure might take.

Simon Kirby is Professor of Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and director of the Centre for Language Evolution. His research group uses computational simulations and lab experiments to study the cultural evolution of human behaviour and its impact on the biological evolution of our species. He also collaborates with sculptors and musicians to create interactive art installations exploring issues of communication and cultural evolution in the online world. His most well known work is the BAFTA-winning Cybraphon, now part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Scotland.

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