Global Discovery Series: Aliens, Experiments, and Cultural Evolution
The Global Discovery Lecture Series lets you explore the world virtually, both far and near, with Penn faculty members and your fellow alumni community. Each live, interactive lecture features Penn professors sharing new and innovative research on a variety of topics. Participants will have the opportunity to ask in-depth questions and are sure to learn something new in each one hour session.
The story of language evolution involves two kinds of evolution. Biological evolution gave us brains and bodies capable of having languages; but those languages themselves evolve culturally, adapting to constraints and pressures of human cognition and the human social world. We can observe this process in the real world to some extent, but—while it is much faster than biological evolution—cultural evolution takes time to occur. How could it ever be captured in the laboratory? One answer comes in the form of experimental alien language games in which participants learn artificial “alien languages” and transmit them to, or use them with others; in some experiments, whole new communication systems emerge in novel media over the course of the experiment. In observing how these alien languages emerge, change, adapt, and vary, we can learn about the evolution of language outside the walls of the lab.
Gareth Roberts is an associate professor in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the Penn Evolution Cluster and the Psychology Graduate Group, the founder and director of the Cultural Evolution of Language Lab, and the founder and co-director of the Social and Cultural Evolution Working Group at Penn. He is interested in most issues related to language evolution and change, and cultural evolution in general. To study this he conducts experiments in which participants communicate using artificial languages or have to construct new languages from scratch. These experiments help to shed light on the role of social and communicative pressures in shaping the emergence and evolution of language (and, indeed, other communication systems).