Routes to Language





Communicative Cooperation


Reverse Dominance

Joint Attention and Diexis

Likely Emergence:

Homo habilis

About 3 million years ago


Ostensive-Inferential Communication


References and other reading

Carroll, J. (2015). Evolutionary Social Theory: The Current State of Knowledge. Style, 49(4), pp.512-541

Dessalles, Jean-Louis. (2000). Language and hominid politics. In Chris Knight, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, and James R. Hurford (eds.), The Evolutionary Emergency of Language (pp.62-80). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edwardes, Martin P. J. (2019)The Origins of Self: An anthropological perspective. London: UCL Press.

Henrich, J. and Henrich, N. (2006). Culture, evolution and the puzzle of human cooperation. Cognitive Systems Research, 7(2-3), pp.220-245.

Scott-Phillips, T.C. (2010). Evolutionary stable communication and pragmatics. Language, games, and evolution. pp.117-133. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Smith, E. (2010). Communication and collective action: language and the evolution of human cooperation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(4), pp.231-245.

McElreath, R., Clutton-Brock, T.H., Fehr, E., Fessler, D. M. T., Hagen, E. H., Hammerstein, P., Kosfeld, M., Milinski, M., Silk, J.B., Tooby, J. and Wilson, M. I. (2003). Group report: The role of cognition and emotion in cooperation. In Hammersten P. (ed.), Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation (pp.125-152). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wubben, M., Cremer, D. and Dijk, E. (2009). How emotion communication guides reciprocity: Establishing cooperation through disappointment and anger. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), pp.987-990.


Why has communicative cooperation evolved when dishonesty and cheating could be beneficial?


Edwardes (2019) noted the importance of humans developing the understanding that other humans had their own agendas. It enabled the sharing of models of each other with each other. This helped humans to form alliances while also requiring people to accept other individual's models as opinions rather than facts which developed the use of temporality, modality and shared imagination (Edwardes, 2019). The ability to discuss events that were distant in time and space arguably helped to increase cooperation (Smith, 2010).


Scott-Phillips (2010) discussed how the concept of reputation potentially encouraged cooperation and honesty to stabilise in humans. Unreliable, dishonest communication could result in a bad reputation with punishment such as social exclusion. Social exclusion would have been easy to carry out while also being effective as punishment (Scott-Phillips, 2010). Carroll (2015) discussed how reverse dominance, the group punishment of an individual's selfish behaviour, was carried out long enough that it became "deeply embedded in evolved human social dispositions" (p.517).


Dessalles (2000) discussed how humans might have provided each other with information about others due to relevant information enhancing social status. Providing relevant information would then have had a selective value from a biological perspective due to increased status resulting in enhanced chances of reproduction. He also noted that when competition between coalitions replaced individual competition for leadership, relevant information signalled ability to lead. The ability of a leader to be relevant then replaced physical strength as a determining factor when choosing a coalition (Dessalles, 2000).


Henrich and Henrich (2006) discussed the importance of culture and genes. The human species has great social learning capacities with natural selection also favouring the cognitive capacities that lead humans to "preferentially learn from more successful individuals" (Henrich and Henrich, 2006, p.226). Therefore, if cooperative behaviour was established as a beneficial norm to follow, it potentially led to imitation of such behaviour. Language also allowed for efficient transmission of culturally accepted behaviours (Smith, 2010).


McElreath et al (2003) described that emotion helped in maintaining cooperation with anger as a response to failure to cooperate enabling punishment to be carried out. Shame enabled adherence to norms. Wubben et al (2009) similarly noted that communicating disappointment was effective to increase cooperation. Potentially, feelings of shame made disappointment effective in maintaining cooperation.


Anna Berg, 2020