Date(s) - November 9, 2018
4:00 am - 5:30 am
Room C-249, Clark
Evolution of brain and language
Language is one of the most important behavioral adaptations of the human lineage. Clues to the evolution of language are evident in the fossil endocranial record, particularly when placed in the context of comparative analyses of primate brains. Brain size itself is associated with several important behavioral dimensions central to language: The complexity of the social environment itself, as well as the expected richness of conceptual understanding. Thus, as brain size increased during our evolutionary history, hominins with increasingly interesting and rich conceptual understanding lived in increasingly complex and interactive social environments. Furthermore, it will be argued that aspects of grammar that have been claimed to be universal across languages are more plausibly explained as cultural conventions reflecting shared, deeply-ingrained conceptual understandings about the world. Clues about language evolution are also evident in the endocranial surface in the vicinity of Broca’s cap in the left hemisphere, which overlies areas relevant to language processing in modern humans. Asymmetries in this region on fossil endocasts suggest a deep ancestry to enhanced communication in our lineage. Finally, a key question in brain and language evolution involves why Broca’s region in particular became co-opted for language, given that it appears to substantially predate the human lineage (and therefore language itself). One hypothesis is that it evolved to pay special attention to any kind of sequential pattern information in the environment. Research probing this hypothesis in humans and great apes will be discussed.
About the Speaker
Tom Schoenemann’s research focus is on the evolution of the brain, along with the presumed coevolution of cognitive abilities responsible for these changes. He has done work on the functional morphology of brain anatomy from an evolutionary perspective, assessed differences in brain anatomy between humans and other primates, and explored models of cognitive evolution, particularly the evolution of language. He has applied mathematical image analysis tools—derived originally for medical research—to questions of the evolution of brain and other aspect of morphology. For many years now he has co-directed the Open Research Scan Archive project at Penn, which has obtained and made freely available over 2500 high-resolution CT scans of osteological specimens for research by scholars worldwide. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1997, and has worked at the Center for Functional Imaging at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and James Madison University, before coming to Indiana University.