The Doctors’ Senate Awards of the University of Barcelona has awarded a doctoral thesis that supports the idea that language evolved gradually and not suddenly as a result of a single genetic mutation. The award, which this year reaches its 26th edition, honours doctoral theses presented at the UB that make the most relevant contributions to the field of human knowledge and the progress of science.
This year, the award received 145 applications, covering practically all the fields of science and humanities studied at the university. Many of the awarded research projects have already been awarded by their faculties with the extraordinary doctoral prize, since they are high quality studies.
Gradual language development and an exploration of vocal learning
The awarded thesis is titled Sound production learning across species: Beyond the vocal learning dichotomy, a study by Dr Pedro Tiago Da Silva Gonçalves Martin, under the supervision of Professor Cedric Boeckx, from the Department of Catalan Philology and General Linguistics of the Faculty of Philology and Communication.
This thesis contributes in two ways to the study of the evolution of language as a complex biological feature. On the one hand, it challenges a prominent theory, according to which the "nuclear properties of language" can be reduced to a single, formally irreducible computational operation, which evolved suddenly as a result of a single genetic mutation. According to the author of the paper, this argument is "biologically unsustainable" and his study supports the idea that language evolved gradually.
The thesis also explores vocal learning, which is part of language ability. The study uses genomic information to suggest that vocal learning may have been present "in some of our ancestors" and may have bridged the gap between "these ancestors and modern humans in terms of language components". It also offers an extension of this framework that, according to the researcher, "avoids the centrality of a particular brain circuit or behaviour and welcomes more factors as sources of variation between species".
Secondary awards for a thesis on symbiosis and for a paper on chronic lymphatic leukaemia
A secondary award was given to Dr Javier Suárez Díaz for his doctoral thesis Methodological strategies in contemporary symbiosis research and their historical roots: From mechanistic to non-mechanistic modes of explanation, supervised by Dr José A. Díez Calzada and Dr John A. Duqpré, from the Department of Philosophy of the Faculty of Philosophy. The purpose of this thesis is to understand how contemporary research on symbiotic systems challenges some of the dominant philosophical theses in the contemporary philosophy of science and biology.
Another secondary award was given to Dr Ferran Nadeu Prat for the thesis Genomic determinants of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia progression: from individual drivers tono a heterogeneous genetic makeup, supervised by Dr Elías Campo Güerri, from the Department of Clinical Foundations of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. This thesis has contributed to the characterisation of the genomic determinants that mark the progression of chronic lymphatic leukaemia —the most common adult leukaemia in Western countries— and has identified molecular markers that will improve patient management.
The UB Doctors’ Senate was created on 26 January 1996 with the aim of bringing together the university’s doctors and promoting the recognition of doctoral degrees, not only scientifically but also socially. It also aims to promote the University’s cultural and research activities, and to disseminate the experience and scientific and professional advances of its members. At the moment, the Senate has more than 1,500 members, facilitating contact between these researchers and people from different fields of knowledge who have carried out excellent studies in recent years.