Nature Reviews Genetics 10, 405-415 (June 2009) | doi:10.1038/nrg2560

Human language as a culturally transmitted replicator

Mark Pagel1  About the author


Human languages form a distinct and largely independent class of cultural replicators with behaviour and fidelity that can rival that of genes. Parallels between biological and linguistic evolution mean that statistical methods inspired by phylogenetics and comparative biology are being increasingly applied to study language. Phylogenetic trees constructed from linguistic elements chart the history of human cultures, and comparative studies reveal surprising and general features of how languages evolve, including patterns in the rates of evolution of language elements and social factors that influence temporal trends of language evolution. For many comparative questions of anthropology and human behavioural ecology, historical processes estimated from linguistic phylogenies may be more relevant than those estimated from genes.

Author affiliations

  1. School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, Berkshire RG6 6AH, UK; and Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.


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