The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal
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Language did not evolve only in the distant past. Our shared understanding of the meanings of words is ever-changing, and we make conscious, rational decisions about which words to use and what to mean by them every day. Applying Charles Darwin's theory of "unconscious artificial selection" to the evolution of linguistic conventions, Daniel Cloud suggests a new, evolutionary explanation for the rich, complex, and continually reinvented meanings of our words.
The choice of which words to use and in which sense to use them is both a "selection event" and an intentional decision, making Darwin's account of artificial selection a particularly compelling model of the evolution of words. After drawing an analogy between the theory of domestication offered by Darwin and the evolution of human languages and cultures, Cloud applies his analytical framework to the question of what makes humans unique and how they became that way. He incorporates insights from David Lewis's Convention, Brian Skyrms's Signals, and Kim Sterelny's Evolved Apprentice, all while emphasizing the role of deliberate human choice in the crafting of language over time. His clever and intuitive model casts humans' cultural and linguistic evolution as an integrated, dynamic process, with results that reach into all corners of our private lives and public character.
undisturbed by the question of what language the syndics might have used in their deliberations, or by dread of vicious regress. I suppose this picture has been entertained by many, in uncritical childhood. Many mature thinkers, certainly, have called language conventional. Many have also, in other connections, been ready with appeals to agreements that were historically never enacted. The social contract, in Hobbes’ theory of government, is the outstanding example. This case is logically more
that The Evolution of Signals 81 moved the population even slightly in either of these two directions would be rapidly ampliﬁed by the positive payoﬀ to both parties from the receiver’s actions, and one of the two signaling conventions would soon become universally accepted. Here there’s no requirement that players “know” anything or have expectations of any kind (let alone higher-order ones) about the other players’ behavior. They can be simple automata that randomly choose strategies and are
like “one if by land, two if by sea” becomes established in a population. We know that this can happen because of the many examples in nonhuman nature—from the alarm cries of vervet monkeys to the signals coordinating the activation of diﬀerent genes in the same cell—of exactly this sort of signaling system evolving over and over. A self-replicating cell diﬀers from a selfreplicating crystal mostly in that the labor of self-replication is divided in the cell among many cooperating molecules, all
and they continued to be used, without much change, all over the world until a few hundred thousand years ago. It’s tempting to suppose that this long period of relative technological stability (I want to say stagnation, but the users of these tools were very successful animals, and we’ll be very lucky if we last as long as they did) is an example of the other possible evolutionary regime for cumulative culture. Perhaps these creatures, unlike modern humans, really did carry a heavy load of
food in one place has to be defended in order to continue to exist for very long. Similarly, an elaborate modern human culture seems to require the existence of some sort of “cultural immunity” system for ﬁltering out maladaptive or corrupted behaviors. If we accept the idea that cultural evolution is a kind of Darwinian evolution seriously, the requirement seems inescapable. Initially, the diﬀerence between the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees might have simply been an increase in some kind