Nijmegen Lectures 2014

27 January 2014 09:30 - 29 January 2014 17:00
Nijmegen Lectures
No miracles! A Darwinian view of the evolution of cognition, language and culture
by Russell Gray
School of Psychology, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Lecture 1: The evolution of cognition without miracles

Debates in the study of animal cognition of often oscillate between over-hyped claims of ""human-like"" cognitive abilities and deflationary ""killjoy"" accounts. In this talk I will argue that studies of cognitive evolution should follow studies of morphological complexity and seek incremental Darwinian accounts rather than postulating miraculous cognitive leaps. Our focus should therefore be on studies of intermediate cognition rather than all-or-nothing claims about our pet species possessing some complex “human-like” ability. I will use our work on tool manufacture in New Caledonian crows to illustrate how quite complex behavioral traditions might have evolved in an incremental fashion “without miracles”.



Cecilia Heyes, University of Oxford, UK

Katherine Cronin, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Netherlands


Taylor, A.H., Miller, R. and Gray, R.D. (2012). New Caledonian crows reason about hidden causal agents. PNAS published ahead of print September 17, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1208724109

Milius, S. (2013). A differ kind of Smart. ScienceNews, 4th May 2013

Lecture 2: The evolution of language without miracles

Evolutionary scientists study variation. A key element of the Darwinian revolution was the insight that variation within species was not some superficial noise that should be stripped away to reveal the underlying species essence. Variation is the signal – over evolutionary time variation within species becomes variation between species. As a legacy of the 1950s Cognitive Science movement, cognitive scientists have often thought of language on a par with vision, olfaction or memory – a human faculty with a universal organization, subject only to minor variation. But compared to animal communication systems one of the most remarkable things about human language is that there are 7000 of them. In this talk I will argue that: 1. this variation is a vital resource for understanding the crucial capacity that makes us human. 2. that computational tools derived from evolutionary biology give us powerful new ways of analyzing this variation. I will conclude the talk by contrasting two scenarios for the evolutionary origins of language. In the first scenario language miraculously evolves in a “big bang” as the consequence of a “chance mutation.” In the second scenario it evolves incrementally by co-opting systems used for gesture and tool manufacture – a double “hand-to-mouth” hypothesis. I will argue that only the second scenario is consistent with the way biologists explain evolutionary novelty today.


Bart de Boer, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Harald Hammarström, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Netherlands


Dunn, M., Greenhill, S.J., Levinson, S.C. and Gray, R.D. (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature, 473, 79–82. doi:10.1038/nature09923

Levinson, S.C. and Gray, R.D. (2012). Tools from evolutionary biology shed new light on the diversification of languages. Trends in Cognitive Science, 16 (3), 167-173 doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2012.01.007

Lecture 3: The evolution of culture without miracles

Many social theorists balk at explaining culture in Darwinian terms. Even some evolutionary biologists contend that cultural change is fundamentally different from biological evolution. They argue that there are no cultural equivalents of genes or species, and that cultural inheritance is too diffuse and reticulate for Darwinian evolution to take place. Culture cannot therefore be meaningfully analysed using tools from evolutionary biology. In this talk I will evaluate these claims. I will argue that although the processes of biological evolution and cultural change are far from identical, there are often sufficient similarities to warrant the careful application of evolutionary thinking and methods. I will show how computational methods derived from evolutionary biology can be used to analyse both vertical and horizontal inheritance, and shed insight on long standing questions ranging from the evolution of complex societies to beliefs in powerful gods. Once again, no miracles are required.



Mónica Tamariz, University of Edinburgh, UK

Asifa Majid, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands


Gray, R.D., Greenhill, S.J., and Bryant, D. (2010). On the shape and fabric of human history. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London, B, 365, 3923-3933.

Gray, R.D, Drummond, A.J. and Greenhill, S.J. (2009). Language phylogenies reveal expansion pulses and pauses in Pacific settlement. Science, 323, 479-483.

Heaven, D. (2013). Whispers from the past. New Scientist, 7 September, Volume 219, 2933,32-35


Sara Bögels
Dan Dediu
Michael Dunn
Monique Flecken
Pieter Muysken
Sean Roberts


Radboud University Nijmegen, Aula, Comeniuslaan 2, Nijmegen
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Wundtlaan 1, Nijmegen

Nijmegen Lectures 2014




Martina.Bernhard [at]

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