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Debating the case for a 'modular' brain with Richard Dawkins


The phenomenon of sign language in children
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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One of the most remarkable phenomena, I find fascinating to read about, are these sign languages that deaf children will evolve almost for themselves. I mean, it's not that some adult dreams up a sign language and then teaches it to deaf children, it's that deaf children evolve sign languages among themselves by passionately wanting to communicate. And these languages have a syntax, I mean, they're really complex... they're real languages, they're not sort of just a collection of meaningless signs or... and it's one of the things that makes me... persuades me that we really do have a kind of drive, an inner set of genetic mechanisms causing us to develop, and learn, syntax and grammar and language. But it could well be that for a time we spoke largely in gesture, we didn't have to use our voices at all - I don't know.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: deaf, sign language

Duration: 1 minute

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008