New Paper: The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical primates

Bruce Edmonds (
Fri, 17 Jul 1998 13:04:46 +0100

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Date: Fri, 17 Jul 1998 13:04:46 +0100
From: Bruce Edmonds <>
Subject: New Paper: The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical primates

Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
1998, Vol 2, issue 2.

The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical

Mario Vaneechoutte
John R. Skoyles


Song (musicality, singing capacity), we argue, underlies both
the evolutionary origin of human language and its development
during early childhood. Specifically, we propose that language
acquisition depends upon a Music Acquiring Device (MAD)
which has been doubled into a Language Acquiring Device
(LAD) through memetic evolution. Thus, in opposition to the
currently most prominent language origin hypotheses (Pinker,
S. 1994. The Language Instinct, W. Morrow, N.Y.; Deacon,
T.W. 1997. The Symbolic Species, W.W. Norton, N.Y.), we
contend that language itself was not the underlying selective
force which lead to better speaking individuals through natural
selection. Instead we suggest that language emerged from the
combination of (i) natural selection for increasingly better
mental representation abilities during animal evolution
(thinking, mental syntax) and (ii) natural selection during recent
human evolution for the human ability to sing, and finally (iii)
memetic selection that only recently (within the last 100,000
years) reused these priorly evolved abilities to create language.
Thus, speech - the use of symbolic sounds linked
grammatically - is suggested to be largely a cultural
phenomenon, linked to the Upper Palaeolithic revolution. The
ability to sing provided the physical apparatus and neural
respirational control that is now used by speech. The ability to
acquire song became the means by which children are able to
link animal mental syntax with syntax of spoken language.
Several studies strongly indicate that this is achieved by
children through a melody-based recognition of intonation,
pitch, and melody sequencing and phrasing. Language, we thus
conjecture, owes its existence not to innate language learning
competencies, but to innate music-associated ones, which -
unlike the competencies hypothesized for language - can be
straightforwardly explained to have evolved by natural

The question on the origin of language then becomes the
question on the origin of song in modern humans or early
Homo sapiens. At present our ability to sing is unexplained. We
hypothesize that song capacity evolved as a means to establish
and maintain pair- and group-bonding. Indeed, several
convergent examples exist (tropical song birds, whales and
porpoises, wolves, gibbons) where song was naturally selected
with regard to its capacities for reinforcing social bonds.
Anthropologists find song has this function also amongst all
human societies.

In conclusion, the ability to sing not only may explain how we
came to speak, but may also be a partial answer to some of the
very specific sexual and social characteristics so typical for our
species and so essential in understanding our recent evolution.

Keywords: origin, human, language, natural selection, cultural
evolution, music, intonation, rhythm, song, children

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Bruce Edmonds,
Centre for Policy Modelling,
Manchester Metropolitan University, Aytoun Bldg.,
Aytoun St., Manchester, M1 3GH. UK.
Tel: +44 161 247 6479 Fax: +44 161 247 6802