Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language (Studies in the Evolution of Language) Review

Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language (Studies in the Evolution of Language)
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Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language (Studies in the Evolution of Language) ReviewDessalles is a specialist in telecommunications, but this book explaining the evolution of language is largely a combination of linguistics, evolutionary biology, and behavioral ecology. The book does not presuppose that the reader know either linguistics or evolutionary biology, which means that much of the first two-thirds of the book will be mostly familiar to those acquainted with these areas. An exception is Dessalles' discussion of protolanguages, which is an interesting evolutionary interpretation of pidgin languages. Dessalles interprets these languages an evolutionary holdover of a previous hominid species that invented and used such languages before the emergence of syntax. This is a just-so story, of course, but a useful one that could lead to interesting future research.
My one problem with this book is that Dessalles does not offer an overview of his message at the beginning, thus forcing the reader to go through a couple hundred pages before being introduced to Dessalles' answer to the question "Why We Talk." Dessalles sets the stage for his theory by noting that if A communicates something to B, and if B benefits from A's communication, then A is an altruist whose genes should disappear unless the communication helps A as well. Conversely, if the communication helps A but not B, then B should evolve to ignore the communication. The fact that both speaker and listener in human societies are prevalent, both must gain. How can this happen?
Dessalles' answer is one that is common for phenomena when there is no clear benefit to the behavior one is attempting to explain. It is "costly signaling" of the type made famous by Zahavi. By communicating eloquently and ostensibly truthfully, the speaker generates a reputation as a high-quality political ally and mating partner. The listener, who must have evolved a critical faculty in the ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, benefits from the information received, and the speaker gains the reputation as coalition partner. Humans use language, he concludes (p. 363) "because a fortuitous change profoundly altered the social organization of our ancestors, who found themselves faced with the necessity, if they were to survive and breed, of forming sizeable coalitions. Language then arose a way in which individuals might show off their value as members of these."
This theory is questionable, because language is too complex and too costly to have evolved merely as a mere signaling device. Dessalles compares conversation in humans to grooming in chimpanzees. Like conversation, grooming serves virtually no useful purpose, but the act of grooming acts as a social bond. However, chimpanzees were not obliged to evolve extremely complex and costly physiological accoutrements permitting effective grooming, as humans had to develop to facilitate the capacity to communicate linguistically.
The correct answer as to why we speak is doubtless more directly linked to the fact that our species is the only social species in which there is extensive cooperation among unrelated individuals, and this cooperation requires that individuals be capable of making compacts involving complicated promises, and to coordinate plans in competition with other human groups occupying the same ecological niche, involving the hunting of large game. I am not satisfied with this answer because, while it is clear that the language capacity is a key element in the development of human hegemony in the past 10,000 years, it is not clear why it was so key to human success over the course of the Pleistocene.
One plausible sequence of events was that early humans, having developed sharp tools and the physical capacity to kill at a distance using projectile weapons, so lowered the cost of punishing lying , cheating, and other anti-social acts that it became possible to ensure that communication could be highly veritable. At this point, the value of a complex language would likely have increased by several orders of magnitude over the usual situation for social species, where there is virtually no means of punishing false and misleading messages. From this point, the coevolution of culture and genes led to the full development of the human linguistic capacity, allowing for a degree of human social organization permitting long-term spatial diversification and population growth.
Dessalles does an excellent job in developing the relevant theory and presenting the facts concerning human evolutionary history and linguistic competence. I am less happy with his answer, and strongly suspect this has to do with the tendency of linguists to minimize the importance of honest transmission, and the role of altruistic punishment in ensuring truthful transmission, the latter be the key to explaining why we speak as we speak, and not some less complex and less meaningful way.
Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language (Studies in the Evolution of Language) OverviewConstant exchange of information is integral to our societies. Jean-Louis Dessalles explores how this came into being. He develops a view of language as an instrument for conversation rather than mental representation and thought. Presenting language evolution as a natural history of conversation, the author sheds light on the emergence of communication in the hominine congregations, as well as on the human nature.

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