Specializations > Psycholinguistics

Humans and interbreeding with other species - language inferences?

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Corybobory:
Since being able to sequence entire genomes, not only of humans but of Neanderthals and Denisovans, our picture of the last 500,000 years of the Homo phylogeny is rapidly changing.  We now know that modern humans interbred with other similar species around at the time, and a recent article suggests a fourth species was also contributing to interbreeding as well (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131218133658.htm).

Do you think evidence of this interbreeding is interesting for linguistics at all?

Daniel:

--- Quote ---Since being able to sequence entire genomes, not only of humans but of Neanderthals and Denisovans, our picture of the last 500,000 years of the Homo phylogeny is rapidly changing.  We now know that modern humans interbred with other similar species around at the time, and a recent article suggests a fourth species was also contributing to interbreeding as well (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131218133658.htm).
--- End quote ---
Interesting!

(What's a species anyway?? Is it as poorly defined as a language? I thought interbreeding was the definition of same species, y'know, mutual intelligibility.)


--- Quote ---Do you think evidence of this interbreeding is interesting for linguistics at all?
--- End quote ---
Hm, I don't know. Certainly it is for a couple reasons:
1. It's possible that these other species also had linguistic abilities-- if so, that would put an end to this "humans are superior because language" nonsense. It's not a uniquely human ability, even if humans happen to be the only extant species to have it-- I don't see any reason why another species couldn't evolve to do it either.
2. To understand the genetic background for "UG" (or your preference of theories), it might be useful to know where humans came from, and why they're not like gorillas and chimpanzees.
(3. A very unlikely scenario is that this interbreeding somehow allowed humans to stumble upon the 'language gene' and be able to speak, specifically due to mixing DNA. I find that very unlikely, if somewhat intriguing.)

But for theory of modern languages, I don't know if this makes much of a difference. On the other hand, at the very least it should help to define how the theory of modern languages shouldn't make random guesses and call them theories ;) Clearly the domain of genetic ability for language is more related to this information than the study of Turkish or Maori syntax, at least in a "hardware" sense.

Corybobory:
(it's a very good point - actually here is another similarity with biological evolution and language change that I hadn't thought of before you mentioned this!  What constitutes a species has similar fuzzy lines and definition problems - generally the definition of a species is, like two mutually unintelligible dialects, two populations that cannot produce fertile offspring [note, fertile offspring, so lions and tigers, although they can produce a 'liger', it is sterile.  Same with mules I think?]. But this produces problems with the species we think of as separate, because sometimes they can interbreed.  Does this mean we should consider them the same species?  There are situations sometimes where certain groups can interbreed with neighbouring groups, and they can with its neighbour, and it can with its neighbour etc, but the first one cannot with the farther neighbour.  So it's a gradual thing.  Defining species in this way would of course make Neanderthals and humans the same species, or subspecies of the same genus.  But there are other ways of describing different species as well, such as 'separate breeding populations', but that also has its own definitional problems... I'm pleased you highlighted another similarity between the language evolution and biological evolution analogy! :))

I totally agree with your post, especially with point 1.  I'm not going to comment because I'm interested in what others have to say...

Daniel:
(It is an interesting parallel, isn't it? And you extended it as well: sometimes there are chains where one group can interbreed/understand their neighbors, but the longer distance pairings are mutually unintelligible / can't interbreed. And that's right about mules. I'd forgotten about ligers not having offspring, but you're right. And clearly with Neanderthals and the other 'species' they would need to pass on the genetic information or we wouldn't exist today apparently!)


Now if someone wanted to claim this has nothing whatsoever to do with language, this is probably the part to pay attention to:
--- Quote ---The research team estimates that between 1.5 and 2.1 percent of the genomes of modern non-Africans can be traced to Neanthertals.
--- End quote ---
Note "non-Africans"-- and we know that Africans can use language; so apparently it's not that 1.5-2.1% that matters for language. Just some 'noise' in the DNA, perhaps.

lx:

--- Quote ---The research team estimates that between 1.5 and 2.1 percent of the genomes of modern non-Africans can be traced to Neanthertals.
--- End quote ---
It would appear I am slightly more Neanderthal than the average bear! I have 2.6% Neanderthal DNA in my genome. But the good news is that it is just slightly under (~0.01%) the mean average of the other users of the DNA service I subscribed to.

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