Living Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

pp 1-5

Date: Latest Version

Modeling Language Transmission

  • Jon W. CarrAffiliated withSchool of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh Email author 
  • , Kenny SmithAffiliated withSchool of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh


Languages adapt as they are transmitted from one generation to the next. Modeling language transmission in computer simulations and laboratory experiments shows how this process gives rise to the structure found in language.


Language is a defining characteristic of our species, so understanding its evolutionary origins is central to understanding human evolution. In their seminal paper, Pinker and Bloom (1990) argued that the evolution of language is best understood as the result of conventional Darwinian processes, just like other complex biological traits. However, languages themselves also adapt and evolve over repeated episodes of learning and use, providing two evolutionary mechanisms that shape language: the biological evolution of the human capacity for language and the cultural evolution of language itself. This entry outlines the consequences of cultural evolution for language and gives examples of how modeling language transmission can shed light on how l ...

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