Chapter 9 – Cooperation and Language Evolution

Wikis > Chapter 9 - Cooperation and Language Evolution

1. Introduction

In this article, we adopt the adaptationist view that language evolved as a result of gradual evolutionary adaption (Pinker, 2010). Darwinism argues for natural selection in evolution and popular culture has adopted it to mean the ‘survival of the fittest’. This means to be able to be able to adapt to the environment the best (Gowlett, 2010). We are of the belief that cooperation, a seemingly insignificant skill, has helped our species, over the other animals to adapt and survive the harsh conditions, forming the foundation of language and thus language evolution in the human species.

2. Relevance to Language Evolution

Amongst humans, cooperation has allowed the species to tap on the different niche skills provided by different individuals (Boyd & Richerson, 2009). In the past, it helped us to complete activities better and more efficiently until eventually there was a development of a conscious mind which allowed self-reflection (Torey, 2014). This created a desire for a better cooperative device, thus language developed (Morgan, 2015). While, cooperation is also observed in animals, we argue that they possess a lower developed ability to cooperate, preventing animals from developing language.

The below paragraphs will focus on the factors of cooperation that we believe facilitated language evolution, specifically: reciprocity and altruism; joint attention; and social intelligence

3. Factors for Cooperation

3.1 Reciprocal Altruism
3.1.1 Reciprocal Altruism in humans

The first factor that we will be discussing in this Wikichapter is Reciprocal altruism. What is it exactly? The term ‘reciprocal altruism’ is a process that favours costly cooperation among reciprocating partners (Trivers, 1971). These include goods (sharing), services (helping) and information (informing) (Tomasello, 2008).

Altruism refers to actions that benefit others at the expense of themselves (Silk, 2013). It consists of helping, sharing and informing. Humans and animals both engage in helping, however sharing and informing is more common for humans. Although altruism displayed by animals is concealed self-interest, it functions to strengthen and preserve social bonds for humans. Actions such as helping in times of danger, sharing food, helping the sick, wounded, young and old, and sharing knowledge are norms displayed and observed in the daily lives of humans. These behaviours demonstrate a purpose more meaningful beyond the mere trading of functional items, but expresses the desire to share, communicate and build relationships with one another (Logan, 2006). Human children, unlike apes are able to engage in joint actions to achieve a collective goal. Children also point and show things to their parents or caregivers just for the contentment of doing so because they want to share interest (Tomasello & Carpenter, 2007). These abilities of children exhibit the cooperative or inherent altruistic attitude of humans where deliberate cooperation is involved.

Furthermore, the inherent desire to share interest and to cooperate is conditional for language because this motivation forms the basis for intricate communication in humans (Logan, 2006). The nature of behaving cooperatively with one another renders language and complex communication possible among humans. Sharing and communicating can therefore possibly be auto-catalytic, where they cause each other to happen as a succession, resulting in the emergence of altruism and language.

3.1.2 Reciprocal altruism in animals

Animals, alike humans, are able to recognise other individuals whom they have interacted with in the past, and some are capable of doing a mental score-keeping (Cheney, 2011). This includes remembering past events that happened between them regardless of the good or bad – a favour received or a conflict that happened between them. While it is common for humans to behave altruistically, the same behaviour is performed by animals mostly because their incurred loss is seen to be counterbalanced by a potential return benefit in the future (König, 2005).

There are two types of reciprocity, namely, high-cost and low-cost reciprocity. Animals, like humans, are more prone to committing low-cost reciprocity or services that incur a lower opportunity cost, instead of high-cost altruism (Brosnan & Waal, 2002). Instances of low-cost reciprocity include grooming while high-cost reciprocity includes food sharing, where survival is at stake. This can be seen in blood sharing activities performed by vampire bats, where they would regurgitate blood to another hungry bat at the expense of starving themselves. The act of sharing blood is dependent on whether the hungry bat has ever helped or returned the favour before. However, we argue that true altruism is seen in humans because its function lies in strengthening social bonds amongst humans. Helping others comes naturally to human children from early age. This can be seen from children offering help to those in need or initiating to share food with others without external stimulation, incentives, or promises of the help being returned to them later. Such behaviour is then further underpinned by cultural and societal norms as they grow up (Tomasello, 2008).  

The video below demonstrates the altruistic nature of human children. In this video, they engaged in helping, and enjoyed doing so, when they see someone in need. On the other hand, if animals such as chimpanzees are under the same situation, they demonstrate less inclination to offer enthusiastic assistance.

The evolution of human language can therefore be seen as a result of social motivations stemmed not just from mere reciprocal altruism, but the desire to share and cooperate with one another, something not observed from other primates.

3.2 Joint Attention
3.2.1 Joint attention in humans

Joint attention occurs when there is mutual interest and willingness to engage with another party. As a result, the other party must be able to hold the same interest and willingness to engage with him or her (Carpenter & Liebal, 2011). This shows a form of cooperative action (Carpenter & Call, 2013) which is important for a proper conversation (Kwisthout, Vogt, & Dijkstra, 2008). For humans, infants first develop joint attention before 9 months of age (Stahl and Striano, 2005). After which, their skills continue to develop eventually allowing them to become the effective communicators that we know today.

The phenomenon of joint attention is observed through the action of sharing looks and gazing. These actions show a form of mutual acknowledgement and understanding of the particular shared object. This paper follows the line of thought that joint attention only truly occurs when individuals engaging in joint behaviour have social intention for the purpose of communication. Therefore, there must be some form of engagement with the other party to purposely interact to demand for the attention of the other party, so that communication can take place.

There are three components of joint attention and they are: checking attention, following attention, directing attention (Carpenter, Nagell, & Tomasello, 1998). Checking attention occurs when a party in a conversation looks to the other person to confirm his or her awareness and engagement of a single shared stimuli (Kwisthout et al., 2008). It is used to search for discrepancies and to figure out possible action (Kwisthout et al., 2008). Said to occur prior to verbalisation, it affects their interpretation of what the conversation content is to be (Carpenter et al., 1998). Following attention allows people to share a frame of referent—referring to the spatial orientation of an object when locating an object. Lastly in directing attention, the hearer selects meaning, after interpreting the conversation content. He will then communicate about the particular shared stimuli to the speaker. The picture below illustrates the phenomenon of joint attention through sharing of looks and gazing.

Thus, joint attention allows coherent conversation because the parties involved in the conversation are able to focus on topics of the conversation (Kwisthout et al., 2008).

3.2.1 Joint attention in animals

For the case of animals, this paper takes the stand that while animals possess joint attention, they only have a limited ability for it. Their ability for joint attention can be seen in experiments involving chimps and bonobos. These animals are seen to engage in typical joint attention behaviour such as gaze following. Furthermore, it is suggested that it is because they have ability for joint attention that they are able to engage in the social activity of playing (Wong & Kasari, 2012). In play, animals as well as children, have to use specific behaviours to communicate their intentions. These actions require joint attention as the other party has to be engaged in the same stimuli to understand their actions and behaviour for meaningful communication.

The video below shows an instance of joint attention between 2 gorillas at play.


From the video, we see that the ability for joint attention allows the two gorillas involved to be engaged in play with the external stimuli, that is, the ball. Without some level of joint attention, the gorillas will not be able to interact. However, it is likely that joint attention is limited for the primates as they do not exhibit behaviour that can be directly understood as joint attentional behaviour. Infants exhibit shared attention by producing declarative gestures that demand for the attention of the other party, proving that there is a demand for engagement with the other party. However, for chimpanzees and other primates, experiments requiring proper engagement with their trainers, show that primates merely follow and share gaze, but do not produce declarative gestures. Therefore, in this video, it is possible that the gorillas instead of wanting to purposely engage with the each other to share interest, simply engage in partial joint attention where there is mere individual, shared attention to an object or thing, involved (Carpenter & Call, 2013).

In order for cooperation to take place, we conclude that joint attentional behaviour has possibly evolved to higher levels in humans. This ability to focus on individual or group attention, with the purpose of communicating with one another has allowed humans to be able to interact properly with one another to facilitate the flow of information and ideas for a thriving community.

3.3 Social Intelligence
3.3.1 Social intelligence in humans

Social intelligence (SI) is the ability to get along well with others, winning their cooperation (Albrecht, 2005). SI was observed in the early humans who cooperated in areas such as tool-making and settings like the fireplace. It is present primarily and most evidently in humans and it differentiates us from other animals. The phenomenon can be seen from several areas such as: sensitivity to the needs and interests of others; altruism; consideration towards others and the ability to interact with others regardless of situation or setting.

Theory of Mind (ToM) which a component of SI, is the ability to understand and predict the behaviour of others by seeing things from their perspective and knowing their mentality (Devaine, Hollard, & Daunizeau, 2014). It is a crucial aspect of social intelligence and cooperation as it is the basis of social interactions and helps humans to be able to understand each other. People with poor communicative abilities such as those with autism spectrum disorders (Baron-Cohen, 2000), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia, have been found to have lower SI and they do not perform as well in ToM tasks. There is a possible correlation between TOM and language disorders. As a result, Milligan, Astington, & Dack, (2007) suggest that there is a strong correlation between ToM and language development.

In this video, Simons demonstrate a test for ToM and showcase how children at kindergarten level (2-5 years of age) are able to pass the test, understanding the perspective of others.

With regards to cooperation, in particular, parent-child relationships, it is found that children with higher participation in family discussion also tends to perform better in ToM tasks. In a study by Ruffman, Slade and Crowe (2002), the study shows that the correlation between the mother’s usage of mental state utterances is consistent with the child’s ToM understanding. With stronger ToM, these children have better communicative abilities and language development. This hypothesis can also be seen in reversed studies where children who were neglected for years, Genie and Victor of Aveyron being classic cases, had low communicative skills and was ultimately was only able to pick up basic social skills. These children had communication issues due to the lack of social interaction to grow abilities related to SI such as ToM, affecting language development. Therefore, these examples show how social interaction and cooperation, especially in the form of parent-child relationship, is crucial in language evolution. The strong cooperative structure between parents and children that humans possess, then allow our children to develop stronger ToM, important to language evolution. 

Language is ever-changing and evolving, one of the newest language that has evolved, the Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), owes its origins to cooperation and SI that humans embody. The birth of this new language is attributed to SI and cooperation between deaf individuals in Nicaragua. 

A brief recount of its history is important to understand how SI and cooperation contributed to language birth. 

1940s: No deaf schools, no socialisation amongst deaf students.

1977:   First deaf school formed.

Students begin to socialise

1986:  Club for social interactions formed.

Signers developed common lexicon

1990s: Deaf community was formed (Yong, 2010)

From the brief history of NSL, we see that the deaf community in fact established NSL on their own as a result of SI which drawn them to interact with one another, despite the situation of having no common language. It was from there that a new language was created.

The example of NSL reveals that language evolved because of interaction between environmental exposure as well as humans’ innate abilities to interact with one another (Senghas & Coppola, 2001). The aforementioned innate abilities are related to SI as they show that humans have adapted and evolved specialised social-cognitive skills in order to live and exchange knowledge in social settings.

3.3.2 Social intelligence in animals

Do animals have ToM? Since the beginning of ToM studies, researchers label it as a feature exclusively unique to humans. They postulate that animals are less capable in understanding the intentions or goals of others. However, in recent years, there are scientists who counter this argument (Wood, Glynn, Phillips, & Hauser, 2007). This paper takes the stand that animals lack the high SI to have ToM. An experiment by Costes-Thiré, et al., (2015) reveals that primates are unable to differentiate between actions that are accidental or intentional. This supports the argument that animals are unable to truly understand the goals or intentions of the experimenters. We then argue that the level of ToM they exhibit is not as profound as humans. These findings can explain the reason for language evolution occurring to humans and not animals, as animals seemingly do not exhibit ToM, or at least perform a lower degree of it.

In another study on animals and primates, it was found that human children who did not receive schooling or developed literacy skills but were able to walk and have basic speech abilities for one year performed approximately the same as chimpanzees and orangutans in physical cognition. However, despite not developing proper literacy skills, the children greatly outstripped the non-human subjects in social cognitive tasks. The result of this study argues that that humans have such abilities mainly because we have a species-specific set of social-cognitive skills that evolved to allow us to participate and exchange knowledge in cultural groups (Herrmann, Call, Hernàndez-Lloreda, Hare, & Tomasello, 2007). This is largely due to the fact that humans evolved and gained stronger SI that then gave birth to other abilities such as communication via languages, showcasing how important cooperation is to language evolution.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, language evolution is the result of humans having greater development of social skills as compared to animals, even our closest primate relatives and has likely been adapted based on our social motivations. It is likely that our social motivations, in form of the three factors mentioned above, allowed us to adapt and develop language. 

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