Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 169–189

From icons to symbols: Some speculations on the origins of language

  • Robert N. Brandon
  • Norbert Hornstein

DOI: 10.1007/BF00142900

Cite this article as:
Brandon, R.N. & Hornstein, N. Biol Philos (1986) 1: 169. doi:10.1007/BF00142900


This paper is divided into three sections. In the first section we offer a retooling of some traditional concepts, namely icons and symbols, which allows us to describe an evolutionary continuum of communication systems. The second section consists of an argument from theoretical biology. In it we explore the advantages and disadvantages of phenotypic plasticity. We argue that a range of the conditions that selectively favor phenotypic plasticity also favor a nongenetic transmission system that would allow for the inheritance of acquired characters. The first two sections are independent, the third depends on both of them. In it we offer an argument that human natural languages have just the features required of an ideal transmission mechanism under the conditions described in section 2.

Key words

Phylogenetic icons heritability phenotypic plasticity phenotypic transmission symbolic language 

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert N. Brandon
    • 1
  • Norbert Hornstein
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyDuke UniversityDurhamU.S.A.
  2. 2.Department of LinguisticsThe University of MarylandCollege Park

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