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Video: In conversation with Professor Kim Sterelny

Australian National University, Evolution, Kim Sterelny

Date: 6 June 2019

Professor Kim Sterelny is a Chief Investigator and leader of the Language Evolution program at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. He is also an ARC Laureate Professor at the ANU School of Philosophy.

In this interview, Kim speaks about his life’s work and current research interests with Dr Rosey Billington, a Research Fellow with the Centre, on the sidelines of our CoEDLFest member conference.

Admitting from the start that he is not a linguist and that language is not his primary interest, Kim also readily concedes that one can’t “duck language” in the story of human evolution.

“My interest is in the evolution of human social life and cognition,” Kim says. “In a relatively short time, humans have become extraordinarily different from the other great apes. Something strange and interesting happened, and my central interest is to understand what that thing is – and language has got to be part of that story.”

“I’ve got to have an account of language to have a satisfactory account of the emergence of human uniqueness, and maybe a good account of that uniqueness can then be co-opted to empirically constrain a gradualist account of the emergence of language."

In the interview, Kim and Rosey tackle questions at the intersection of philosophy and the natural sciences, including the theories of Noam Chomsky and philosophy’s integrative role in an age of “relentless specialisation and sub-specialisation”.

“There are natural connections between philosophy and the language sciences,” Kim says. A" particular one is a natural interest in semantics, in issues of meaning and pragmatic communication.

“Another is that our understanding of when and how language emerged is changing. There is very persuasive evidence that Sapiens, Neanderthals, Denisovians and probably their common ancestor had the genetic potential for language.”

Rosey Billington interviews Kim Sterelny

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University