When a bacteria colony swells beyond a certain size, its organisms band together to produce a protective biofilm. They sense their number via chemical signaling, a simple and clear communication system that has changed little over eons.

Elsewhere on the tree of life, humans entertain a bewilderingly capricious attitude toward their communication system. Our languages grow, morph, move, dominate, and even disappear.

Why all the bother? Surely if a language was hard-wired into our genes, we’d be born understanding one another and could move on to bigger things. Why is language, this cornerstone of human community, so malleable, so difficult to learn, and culturally (rather than genetically) transmitted?

These and other questions fuel a working group at SFI this week, “Co-evolution of social structure and communication in different genotypes,” organized by SFI Professor Tanmoy Bhattacharya, who leads SFI’s linguistics program, and SFI External Professor Steve Lansing.

Bhattacharya and colleagues recently published a study on how sounds in language change. They are now researching the selective forces driving meaning change: among them the advantages of identity (setting English speakers apart from, say, French speakers) and safety (only the members of your in-group understand one another in risky circumstances where trust and cooperation are paramount for survival).

Lansing, an anthropologist and field linguist, co-directs the Singaporean Institute for Complexity Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. Some of his recent work correlates languages and mitochondrial DNA, showing how language is largely passed from mother to child but subject to social structures.

This shared mechanism of matrilineal information flow raises the question: If populations of both humans and words develop similarly, should genes and language flows be studied together?

During the invitation-only working group, SFI’s first collaboration with the new Singaporean institute, invited specialists in historical linguistics, genetics, and bacterial signaling are discussing the co-evolution of social structure and communication in different genotypes, exploring frameworks for thinking about the problem, and considering the best investigative and analytical tools for the job.

More about the working group here.

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