University of Chicago Big Ideas Generator


Big Question: The autocatalytic evolution of language

University of Chicago Big Questions

Principal Investigator: John Padgett, Political Science

Funding Type: Seed

Focus Area: Complexity

Big Idea: A path-breaking concept in the literature on the origins of life, autocatalysis is the chemical foundation of life. We have extended this particular “living networks” perspective to social, political and economic systems in order to understand the emergence of organizational novelty in numerous historical settings—(a) the rise of capitalism in Western Europe [in particular, Italy, Netherlands and Germany], (b) the fall of Communism and post-Communist reconstruction in Soviet Union, China and Hungary, and (c) the emergence of the biotechnology industry in the U.S.  Previously, we have developed the concepts of production and biographical autocatalyses. The next step is linguistic autocatalysis. My approach is to recognize, but not to emphasize, the distinctiveness of human linguistic systems as compared with “lower order” (but still complex) cellular signaling and insect and animal communication. I want to construct abstractions rooted in autocatalytic production that span communication systems, thereby identifying specific steps involved in language evolution.

Check out other funded projects