How evolution generates complexity without design: Language as an instructional metaphor

Michael R. Gillings*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


One of the major stumbling blocks to understanding evolution is the difficulty in reconciling the emergence of complexity with the apparently undirected forces that drive evolutionary processes. This difficulty was originally framed as the "Watch and Watchmaker" argument and more recently revived by proponents of "intelligent design." Undergraduates in particular often attribute purpose and forethought as the driving force behind biological phenomena, and have difficulty understanding evolutionary processes. To demonstrate that complexity can arise solely through mutations that fix in populations via natural selection or drift, we can use analogies where processes can be observed across short time frames and where the key data are accessible to those without specialized biological knowledge. The evolution of language provides such an example. Processes of natural selection, mutation, genetic drift, acquisition of new functions, punctuated equilibria, and lateral gene transfer can be illustrated using examples of changing spellings, neologism, and acquisition of words from other languages. The examples presented in this article are readily accessible, and demonstrate to students that languages have dynamically increased in complexity, simply driven by the usage patterns of their speakers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)617-622
Number of pages6
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012

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