Non-biological Contagions: Memes, Language, And Technology


Vanessa Ferdinand, Artemy Kolchinsky, Yoav Kallus

Languages, as well as many other cultural artifacts, spread among individuals much like viruses. Even today, we see new languages being born and spread, such as Nicaraguan sign language and Al-Sayyid Bedouin sign language. We can reverse their process of spread and adoption to learn about how language originated, although many enticing questions remain open on this topic. Language may be genetically innate in humans, having arisen as a genetic mutation in one individual. But if so, who would that first individual talk to? It is more plausible that language is like agriculture or other technologies which have multiple independent origins. Did early language spread culturally, with nonlinguistic hominin groups observing and imitating linguistic ones, or did the linguistic groups simply outcompete and eradicate the nonlinguistic ones? Regardless of this answer, we know the result: language has populated, transformed, and replaced the prelinguistic cognition of our distant ancestors. When considering the origin of life, the precursor of modern life probably outcompeted and eradicated many alternative forms of emergent proto-life, and it may continue to prevent alternative forms of proto-life from emerging. The same may be true of cultural evolution: our current minds are inhabited by the descendents of the first human languages, which may have eradicated (and may still be suppressing the evolution of) alternative forms of communication. However, much lies in store for the evolution of human communications, and human language as we know it may yet be replaced by unimaginable, new social communication technologies. What forms of communication could ever replace language, could they bring humanity even closer together, and do they lie in our evolutionary future?