Social conditions for the evolutionary emergence of language

Chris Knight and Camilla Power

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Social conditions for the evolutionary emergence of language

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  • Linguistics
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  • Sociolinguistics


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This article examines the social conditions for the evolutionary emergence of language. Human psychology evolved in adaptation to a particular way of life, based on hunting and gathering. Evolving humans compensated for vulnerability to dangerous predators by developing unprecedented forms of social cooperation, material culture, and strategies for remembering, transmitting, and exchanging accumulated knowledge. One of the views known as “deep social mind” holds that distinctively human forms of cultural transmission necessarily co-evolved with cooperative mindreading together with increasing egalitarianism. Humans everywhere may share dispositions toward dominance as a part of the inherited psychological package but equally, humans have corresponding tendencies to resist being dominated. At a certain point in human evolution, the benefits of deploying Machiavellian intelligence to impose dominance over others became matched by the costs of overcoming the Machiavellian resistance of others. The increased human group sizes placed a premium on enhanced social intelligence, the ability to negotiate alliances, in turn driving selection pressures for neocortical expansion. Human hypersociality and intersubjectivity emerged initially under such selection pressures, with mothers increasingly willing to trust allocarers with their babies.

Keywords: human psychologyl; mindreading; Machiavellian intelligence; social intelligence; human hypersociality

Article.  1481 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Sociolinguistics

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