Philip Lieberman's central interest is the nature and evolution of the biological bases of human language and cognition. In essence, his work centers on the evolution of modern human beings since these are among the central attributes that differentiate us from apes. His outlook, therefore, is shaped by principles and procedures of Evolutionary Biology. As Theodosius Dobzhansky noted, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution." Conversely, the mark of evolution is evidence in the anatomy and physiology of the human brain and body.

Lieberman’s studies support the view that neural bases of human cognitive ability represent the result of both Darwinian Natural Selection and chance events which modified brain mechanisms whose original function was motor control. This process yielded neural circuits that regulate cognitive acts, including language, by linking activity in prefrontal cortex with other cortical areas through shared, common subcortical structures, such as the basal ganglia. This view contrasts with theories such as the 19 th century Broca-Wernicke “language organ” theory, that compartmentalize the brain into localized “modules” that each regulate some distinct capacity. In brief, the neural bases of human cognitive ability, marked by its creative capacity whether expressed in complex language and thought processes, or seemingly unrelated acts such as dancing, are commingled. Moreover, studies of the speech anatomy of human infants, apes and examination of the fossil record suggest that fully modern human beings who could talk and think as we do, appeared comparatively recently – somewhere between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago.

The experimental findings germane to these theories derive from studies over the course of forty years by Lieberman and his colleagues which demonstrate the role of evolution in matching anatomical capabilities for speech with brain mechanisms that regulate motor control as well as cognition. Studies of the development of human speech producing anatomy in infants and comparative studies of non-human primates show that the unique human tongue and upper airway enhance the processes by which speech is produced and perceived, at the expense of increasing the risk of choking on food. Although most linguists, influenced by Noam Chomsky have focused on syntax as the unique feature of human linguistic ability, speech occupies a central role in language; it allows us to communicate information at an exceeding rapid rate. Human speech entails having both unique, species-specific anatomy and neural motor-control capabilities. Therefore, the presence of human tongues 50,000 years ago is an index for brains that could rapidly sequence the gestures necessary to produce voluntary speech, a capability absent in apes, else the propensity to increase the risk of death by choking would not have led to its retention.

Lieberman’s joint research with medical school faculty, other colleagues, and Brown University graduate and undergraduate students have revealed a “syndrome” – a pattern of speech motor and cognitive deficits occurs that derive from impaired subcortical basal ganglia structures. Ongoing studies of Parkinson’s disease, childhood developmental verbal apraxia, Rolandic epilepsy, autism, hypoxic insult to the brain arising from exposure to extreme altitude as climbers ascend Mount Everest, and focal brain lesions provide an opportunity for both graduate and undergraduate students to participate in research. Other studies on speech production have synthesized the vowels that Neanderthals could have uttered. The findings of these studies have been applied to the diagnosis and treatment of these conditions as well as monitoring systems for exposure to high-intensity radiation in space travel, which produces damage to neural circuits involving the basal ganglia.

The relevance of these findings to linguistic theories such as those proposed by Chomsky and Pinker is discussed in his books which include, The biology and evolution of language (1984), Human language and our reptilian brain: The subcortical bases of speech, syntax and thought (2000), and Toward an evolutionary biology of language (2006), all published by Harvard University Press. The general constraints of evolutionary biology and genetic data argue against any version of Chomsky’s, “Universal Grammar,” including its most recent version, the “narrow faculty of language.” Lieberman’s other research interests include the expression of emotion and how genes influence behavior.

Lieberman received a Guggenheim Fellowship, presented the 1990 Nijmegen Lectures of the Max Planck Institut fur Psycholoinguistic, was a NATO Visiting Professor, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Psychological association, and the American Anthropological Association. He also holds an appointment at Brown University as Professor of Anthropology. He has lifelong interests in mountain walking, climbing and photography. Lieberman’s photographic exhibits and publications are listed in Who’s who in American art. He has documented life in traditional Tibetan settings. His photographs also illustrate his wife, Marcia’s articles and guidebooks on mountain walking and trekking in the Alps and Himalaya and document the 15 th century Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings in the temples of the Mustang region of Nepal in a joint study with her that was commissioned by the Getty Foundation.

Websites showing photographs:

Lieberman, M., Jordan, N. and Lieberman P. 2003. Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings of Mustang, Nepal:

Lieberman, P. 2006. Black and white photographs of Tibetan life in the Himalaya in the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library: select Collections, then select Special Collections, then select Lieberman Collections grouped by area.











Click below to access recent pdfs of papers and chapters

Lieberman, P. 2002. On the nature and evolution of the neural bases of human language. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. 45:36-62

Lieberman, P., A. Morey, J. Hochstadt, M. Larson, and S. Mather. 2005. Mount Everest: A space-analog for speech monitoring of cognitive deficits and stress. /Aviation, Space and environmental Medicine. /76:198-207.

Hochstadt, J., H. Nakano, P. Lieberman and J. Friedman. 2006. The roles of sequencing and verbal working memory in sentence comprehension deficits in Parkinson’s disease. /Brain and Language/. 97:243-257.

Lieberman, P. 2007. The evolution of human speech; Its Anatomical and neural bases. Current Anthropology/. 48:39-66.

Lieberman, P. and R. McCarthy . 2007, Tracking the Evolution of Language and Speech./ Expedition. /49:15-20.

Lieberman, P. 2007.Old-time linguistic theories. /Cortex/ 24:431-435

Lieberman, P. 2008. On the neural bases and evolution of free will: reflections on:/Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and political Power./ By John R. Searle, /The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, Journal of ISSEI./13:343-346.


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Neanderthal attempting to produce the vowel [i] - the vowel of the word "see,"