Accepted paper:

Toward a theory of everything


Chris Knight (University College London)
Jerome Lewis (University College London)

Paper short abstract:

There can be no solution to the problem of the origins of language considered in isolation. Instead, we need to explain the full range of strategies through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors established a symbolically mediated, ritually structured, egalitarian and cooperative lifestyle.

Paper long abstract:

Within the past two decades, the evolutionary emergence of language has become a major focus of interdisciplinary research. Despite numerous dedicated workshops, conferences, research programs and publications, however, we remain as far as ever from a satisfying or even tentatively agreed solution. We suspect that language is so intimately dependent on other aspects of distinctively human psychology, social organisation, communication and culture that no language-specific solution is possible, even in principle. Progress in our view depends on adopting a multidisciplinary approach, based on the idea that language evolved not in isolation but as part of a much wider process. With these considerations in mind, this paper compares and contrasts nonhuman primate sociality with the 'reverse dominance' dynamics characteristic of egalitarian hunter-gatherers. For grammar to evolve, it was not enough for social relations to become more co-operative. Before grammaticalization processes could get under way, primate-style dominance/submission dynamics had to be decisively overthrown and replaced by an egalitarian social dynamic based on reverse dominance. Once trusting relationships are stably established within ritually bonded reverse-dominance coalitions, two-way intersubjectivity can fully emerge, making possible the joint attention structures on which linguistic communication is predicated. Only once these conditions are met can grammaticalization begin. We conclude that research into the evolutionary emergence of language must unite biological and social anthropologists in an interdisciplinary quest to explain the full range of strategies through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors established a new, symbolically mediated way of life.

panel P41
Social anthropology and human origins