Functionally Flexible Signaling and the Origin of Language


At the earliest break of ancient hominins from their primate relatives in vocal communication, we propose a selection pressure on vocal fitness signaling by hominin infants. Exploratory vocalizations, not tied to expression of distress or immediate need, could have helped persuade parents of the wellness and viability of the infants who produced them. We hypothesize that hominin parents invested more in infants who produced such signals of fitness plentifully, neglecting or abandoning them less often than infants who produced the sounds less frequently. Selection for such exploratory vocalization provided a critically important inclination and capability relevant to language, we reason, because the system that encouraged spontaneous vocalization also made vocalization functionally flexible to an extent that has not been observed in any other animal. Although this vocal flexibility did not by itself create language, it provided an essential foundation upon which language would evolve through a variety of additional steps. In evaluating this speculation, we consider presumable barriers to evolving language that are thought to be implications of Darwinian Theory. It has been claimed that communication always involves sender self-interest and that self-interest leads to deceit, which is countered through clever detection by receivers. The constant battle of senders and receivers has been thought to pose an insuperable challenge to honest communication, which has been viewed as a requirement of language. To make communication honest, it has been proposed that stable signaling requires costly handicaps for the sender, and since language cannot entail high cost, the reasoning has suggested an insurmountable obstacle to the evolution of language. We think this presumed honesty barrier is an illusion that can be revealed by recognition of the fact that language is not inherently honest and in light of the distinction between illocutionary force and semantics. Our paper also considers barriers to the evolution of language (not having to do with honesty) that we think may have actually played important roles in preventing species other than humans from evolving language.

Publication Title

Frontiers in Psychology