excerpts from Daniel Dor, Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis, The Social Origins of Language (Oxford, 2014)




In many cases it is behavioural change that comes first, subsequently determing genetic change
.

Daniel Dor, Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis, "Introduction"

The gene-centred approach to language’s evolutionary emergence relies on an outdated conception of evolution.  Current research in evolutionary biology highlights the fact that major changes in behaviour and cognition can take place without any changes in the genes.  In many cases it is behavioural change that comes first, subsequently determing genetic change (Dor and Jablonka, Chapter 2).  This understanding opens up the possibility that linguistic capacities may have preceded genetic accommodation for language.  This, together with the indisputable fact that much of our behaviour and cognition is socially constructed implies that social and cultural dynamics need to be positioned centre-stage in any explanation for the emergence of Homo sapiens. p. 2



language’s evolutionary emergence would have required profound social and political change, [and] more trusting, stable relationships

Daniel Dor, Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis, "Introduction"

In language, we formulate our thoughts for others and hence for  ourselves.  It’s a system for publicly expressing our thoughts to help others imaginatively reconstruct them.  This communication technology is used by all human socities despite manifesting remarkable variability in technical design.  It resides and develops at the level of community, and is acquired by individuals as part of their socialization.  Investigating the evolution of our individual cognitive and linguistic abilities as if they operated in social isolation ignores the central component of language.  As we attempt to show throughout this volume, focusing on language in context allows for a new understanding of its origins, since it places social and cultural relationships centre-stage.  It suggests that our pre-linguistic ancestors may have already had significant linguistic potential, but remained blocked from collaboratively constructing actual languages owing to conflict-ridden, mistrustful social conditions.  If this was the problem, language’s evolutionary emergence would have required profound social and political change, more trusting, stable relationships enhancing the chances of cultural innovations being preserved and transmitted, leading eventually to the cumulative construction, grammaticalization, and historical divesification of stable linguistic traditions as we know them today. p. 3




. . .
in the case of many nonhuman primates, dominance asserted through violence or threat is the internal principle of social organization . . .

Daniel Dor, Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis, "Introduction"

Needless to say, humans are capable of violence, just apes and monkeys are.  But in the case of many nonhuman primates, dominance aserted through violence or threat is the internal principle of social organization, a situation which humans would find psychologically intolerable.   Within a human speech community, physical violence or threat between speaker and listener can easily destroy mutual trust.  Where public trust collapses, people cease to be ‘on speaking terms’.  Such conditions are not conducive to linguistic creativity.  Since there are good theoretical reasons for this, several of our contributors infer that, for as long as this type of primate-style social dynamics prevailed, evolving humans would have been unable to realize their lingusitic potential in the delicate joint enterprise of contracting, preserving, innovating, and transmitting actual languages historically across generations. 

On one point we are all agreed: languages began evolving as a conssequence not of one social fact but of multiple interacting ones. . . .  Unprecedented  levels of collective co-operation favoured genetic capacities for interesubjetive sensitivity and understanding.  Pre-linguistic innovations mot  probably included shared childcare, the control of fire and cooking, projectile weapons, big game hunting, increasingly equal power relations between the sexes, emotional bonding through music, dance and other forms of ritual—and, as a  consquence of increased trust within relatively stable coalitions, steadily increasing chances for cultural innovations to be preserved and transmitted to future generations.  All this drove selection pressures favouring novel capacities for mimetic, gestural, and vocal communication, culminating finally in levels of trust sufficient for linguistic innovations to be preserved and for self-organized grammatical structures to emerge.  p. 4




. . . primate-style dominance is periodically overthrown and then restored, only to be overthrown and restored again and again

Daniel Dor, Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis, "Introduction"

 . . . Power focuses on the trend towards counter-dominance and egalitarianism highlighted by the co-operative eye hypothesis and deep social mind.  Counter-dominance in Power’s view culminates in reverse dominance established through a uniquely human social revolution—inaugurating a hunter-gather tradition of ritual action in which primate-style dominance is periodically overthrown and then restored, only to be overthrown and restored again and again. p. 5



Language consitutes a ‘biocultural niche’, embedded within the entire human semiosphere—everything in human culture, material and non-material, that is symbolic in nature.

Daniel Dor, Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis, "Introduction"

As Chris Sinha argues in chapter  3, none of this implies that the social and biological explanations ‘are fated to eternal opposition’.  On the contrary, the new paradigm highlights the ‘dual ontology’ of language—the fact that it exists both in socity and in the mind.  Language consitutes a ‘biocultural niche’, embedded within the entire human semiosphere—everything in human culture, material and non-material, that is symbolic in nature.  Sinha identifies the origins of language in the transityion from signals of the kind used by other animals to influence one another’s behaviour—what might be termed body language—to something entirely new.  Humans began to interact ‘intersubjectively’, each viewing their own mental states and intentions as if through th other’s eyes.  Against this background,our ancestors accomplished the momentous transition to mutually agreed symbols, used by humans to influence not the world, but how others understand the world. p. 5



. . . the cultural technologies of reading and writing seem to have extended human memory, enabled abstract chains of reasoning, and guided new ways of scanning visual items, thus making human[s] even more cognitively plastic.

Daniel Dor and Eva Jablonka, “Why we need to move from gene-culture co-evolution to culturally driven co-evolution"


The range and boundaries of plasticity are not fixed, however, and in some cases plasticity itself can be plastic.  This is especially clear in the case of complex behaviors.  For example, the cultural technologies of reading and writing seem to have extended human memory, enabled abstract chains of reasoning, and guided new ways of scanning visual items, thus making human[s] even more cognitively plastic. 23

 . . . it is important to realize that language itself, once it was there, immediately enhanced the group’s capacity for further collective exploration, because it provided a revolutionary new tool for the construction of the common representational space.  As Tylen et. al. (2010: 3) indicates in a comprehensive review article, experimental evidence clearly shows that language facilitates social interaction in four ways, all of which are crucial for collaborative exploration: “Language dramatically extends the possibility-space for interaction, facilitates the profiling and navigation of joint attentional scenes, enables the sharing of situation models and action plans, and mediates the cultural shaping  of interactive minds. . . .  Language, then, may have been entanged from the very beginning in a co-evolutionary spiral with the human capacity for collaborative creativity—first as a product, within the common representational space, then (immediately) as a tool for the further construction of the common space. 26



Language . . . is a quasi-artefactual biocultural niche, and the capacity to acquire and use it involves the evolution and replication of a phenogenotypic biocultural complex.

Chris Sinha, "Niche construction and semiosis: biocultural and social dynamics"

 . . . some biologists are increasingly acknowledging the role of culture in shaping the evolutionary process at the genetic level, by the construction of new selective environments. Current developments  in theoretical biology, among which niche construction theory is particularly salient, significantly depart from the neo-Darrwinian synthesis that dominated 20th-century biology, by incorporating an ecological dimension that, I shall argue, proves to be particularly important for understanding human linguistic and cognitive evolution.  32-3

Language . . . is a quasi-artefactual biocultural niche, and the capacity to acquire and use it involves the evolution and replication of a phenogenotypic biocultural complex. 37

 . . . what makes humans unique is not an innate language acquisition device plus a variety of other species-specific innate cognitive modules, but a generalized semiotic or symbolic capacity, epigenetically developed from a suite of cognitive capacities largely shared with other species, but attaining higher levels of organization in humans.  This capacity is not inscribed in the human genome, but distributed across the practices and systems co-constituing (with the epigenetically developed human organism) the human phenogenotype.  39

It is incresingly recognized, in theories of distributed cognition, that human cognitive processes extend ‘beyond the skin’, involving intersubjectively shared mental states and cultural-cognitive technologies.  This preents a conceptual problem not only for psychology, with its traditional individualist assumptions, but also for biology, which assumes by default that the organism as a behavioral and morphological individual is identical to the organism as bearer of genetic material. 44-5

However, a further step, specific to human evolution and development, can and should be taken.  The human organism, by virtue of the semiotic status of the body and the normative shaping of its activities in a cultural field, has a dual ontology, both culturally constituted as a constituent of the semiosphere and, at a purely biological level, a genetic individual.  The body is part of the system which extends beyond the body, as well as being the originating sine qua non of that system.  While non-human organisms are sympex, the human organism is duplex, and its phenogenotypic coupling with the constructed niches involves a developmenta process of auto-construction. Language has a dual ontology, as part of biologicalhuman species-being—what it means to be human—and as a foundational social institution in the Durkheimian sense.  45




intersubjectivity and shared intentionality

Camilla Powers, "Signal evolution and the social brain"

The nine-month ontogenetic ‘revolution’ enabling the human infant to participiate in intersubjectivity and shared intention (Tomasello and Rakoczy 2003) must be based in a phylogenetic revolution of certain species  of of Homo where Machiavellian strategies of counter-dominance (Redal and Whiten 1994, 1996) and reverse dominance (Boehm 1999) became more successful than primate dominance.  Whiten and Erdal (2012) emphasize the socio-cognitive complex of cooperation, egalitarianism, and mindreading alongside language and cultural transmission in the evolution of humans as successful hunter-gatherers.  On the basis of similar life history variables (Robson and Wood 2008)—length of lifespan, inter-birth intervals, onset of childhood, and late maturation—candidate species for sharing in this overthrow of primate dominance leading to cooperative cultural cognition are H. neanaderthaensis and possibly H. heidelbergensis, ancestors of ourselves and the Neanderthals from half a million years ago (Opie and Power 2008; Stringer 2012). 51



All languages are socially constructed technologies for the instruction of imagination, but the actual dynamics of exploration and stabilization in each and every language could be as variable as their communities, their histories, their particular communicative needs, their collective capacities, and the private experiential worlds of their speakers.



Daniel Dor, "The instruction of imagination: language and its evolution as a communication technology"

Current discourse on human experiencing tends to ignore the privacy of experience for a very good theoretical reason: much of the discourse has emerged as a counter-reaction to the solipsistic view of human experiences based on Cartesian philosophy, and has thus sytematically highlighted the intersubjective nature of human experiencing—the primacy of the interpersonal over the intrapersonal.  p. 108

In order to understand language, then, I suggest that we have to abandon both the Kantian dictum, the foundational presupposition of the cognitive sciences, that all human experiences comply with a universal interpretive scheme, and the neo-Kantian conviction, the foundational presupposition of most of the social sciences, that the members of every culture and sub-culture experience the world in the same ways.  We have to begin with the acknowldgement that each human individual lives in a private, experienctial world which is different from that of the others, and is inaccessible to them.  p. 109  Roper, Lacan

All languages are socially constructed technologies for the instruction of imagination, but the actual dynamics of exploration and stabilization in each and every language could be as variable as their communities, their histories, their particular communicative needs, their collective capacities, and the private experiential worlds of their speakers. 124



‘conventional knowledge sits in a kind of “middle ground” between objective and subjective knowledge about the world . . . it is neither strictly objective, nor subjective—it is ‘intersubjective’

Emily Wyman, "Language and Collective Fiction"

However, a curious type of speech act know as ‘performative’ niether describes nor brings about change in the world, but creates altogether new institutional states of affairs, or ‘istitutional facts’, within it. (171)

As succinctly put by Kalish and Sabbagh, ‘conventional knowledge sits in a kind of “middle ground” between objective and subjective knowledge about the world . . . it is neither strictly objective, nor subjective—it is ‘intersubjective’.  (173)

 . . . the categories that humans recruit in making sense of the world are, in general, not restricted to the traditional ontological dichotomy of objective vs. subjective.  They also include categories of fact that may be termed ‘ontologially intersubjective’, in that they exist in virtue of group consensus.  Indeed, it may be precisely becau such facts elude objective and subjective categorization tht we recognize their intersubjective foundations, and with no reduction in their normative force.  As Plotkin incixely observes, it is simply that for many human affairs, ‘the law is grounded in the group’. (181)

More generally, that humans use language and symbolic action to coordinate their private imaginings into shared, public fictions that have normative force is profoundly revealing with regard to our social evolution.  In addition to sophisticated behavioural coordination strategies (shared with many other species of the animal kingdom) humans have, in addition, evolved modes of coordinating cognitively.  The ability to jointly imagine and subscribe to a set of fictional statuses that we subsequently use to guide our interactions in normative terms is qualitatelvely different from anything observed outside our own species.  Indeed, the whole framework of collective intentionality, in which we share attention to aspects of the environment, share goals and plans for collaborating together, and subscribe to shared fictions that then further govern our interactions, indicates an evolutionary environment in which the threats ofcompetition and social exploration became outweighted by the necessisties of cooperation and trust.

It thus seems highly relevant that significant phases of human evolution appear to have been characterized by distinctly egalitarian socio-political organization.  These centrally involve anti- or reverse-dominance mechanisms that punish individuals who who try to establish superior social status over others, continually blocking the development of social hierarchy.  A socio-political climate such as this may have been pivotal in attenuating competition levels in hominin communities, such that collective imagination, status functions and institutions, and the performative devices that enable us to negotiate these could emerge in human evolution. (183)