A research paper has been presented by: Yuri Natochin, a physician, Professor at St Petersburg University and a Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; and Tatiana Chernigovskaya, Director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies at St Petersburg University and a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Education. They showed that the evolution of biological systems, for example, water-salt metabolism in the organism of vertebrates, is in many respects similar to the evolution of languages – both natural languages and artificial ones.  

The article is published in the current issue of Biological Communications and it includes statements about certain evolutionary universals.

As Yuri Natochin said, he had long been interested in the idea of finding general principles for organising different spheres of the living and non-living. It is quite likely that the philosophers of the past were thinking about this. The medieval Persian thinker, scientist and physician Avicenna wrote: ‘Everything that nature has managed to accumulate invisibly enters into the nature of the body.’ To illustrate their idea of the similarity between the evolution of living and non-living, the researchers chose unusual examples: the kidneys of vertebrates and the language as a sign system.

So that you can live happily and not worry about your own body, the body must have a system that would give you internal physiological freedom. This system is called homeostasis. It ensures the constancy of the physical and chemical parameters of the environment that surrounds every cell in your body. The main organ of this system is the kidneys. It is through them that a huge amount of blood passes (more than a ton per day) in order to provide the ideal composition of the environment necessary for your body and, first of all, for the brain.

Yuri Natochin, Professor at St Petersburg University and a Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences

As the authors of the research paper note, the principles underlying the functioning of the kidney can be compared with the principles underlying the evolution of language. Such a connection can be traced, for example, if we consider the levels of organisation of these two systems. The initial level in the case of the kidney will be the cell, and in the case of the language it is the phoneme – the minimum meaningful unit of the language. The second level corresponds to functional units: in the language these are morphemes, in the kidney – nephrons. The third level is organs: a kidney is built from nephrons, a word is built from morphemes. And at the fourth level, the kidney is included in the functional system of the body, where it provides homeostasis. In its turn, the word becomes part of a sentence or phrase that expresses a thought.

The study also shows that both systems comply with the general principles of evolution. One of them is multi-functionality: the kidneys of vertebrates, in addition to the excretion function, are also responsible for the production of hormones. At the same time in the language one and the same word can have several meanings at once. Another example is the regression of function: in the process of evolution, marine bony fish have lost the ability to produce hypoosmotic urine (containing no solutes) in order to adapt to the transition from fresh water to sea water. At the same time, regression functions in the language can be seen in the example of words that have gone completely out of use. There are other general principles: intensification, change and replacement of functions. Interestingly, such laws work not only with natural, but also with artificial languages (programming languages).

‘In 1956, Leon Orbeli formulated two pivotal evolutionary principles: the evolution of functions and functional evolution, which he defined as penetration into the essence of “why the evolutionary process proceeded this way and not otherwise”. These basic factors include: physicochemical factors in the evolution of functions; the formation of the relationship of functional systems; the formation of the integrity of the organism: and the development of adaptation mechanisms. It seemed interesting to see if the distinguished principles can be applied to analyse the evolution of not only biological, but also other information systems, in particular the language. The principles we distinguish are organised hierarchically and can be described as four levels of evolution of both physiological and linguistic systems. Of particular interest is the issue of the evolution of "rules" that regulate the functioning of units within each level and the relationship among the levels themselves. The identification of common features of the evolution of such different systems cannot but cause surprise... Of course, it is difficult to predict a further language evolution, but it is important to understand that language is alive and constantly changing. It seems to be moving towards more economical algorithms,’ said Tatiana Chernigovskaya.