Why Possibly Language Evolved

Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd


Human language has no close parallels in other systems of animal communication. Yet it is an important part of the cultural adaptation that serves to make humans an exceedingly successful species. In the past 20 years, a diverse set of evolutionary scholars have tried to answer the question of how language evolved in our species and why it is unique to us. They have converged on the idea that the cultural and innate aspects of language were tightly linked in a process of gene-culture coevolution. They differ widely about the details of the process, particularly over the division of labor between genes and culture in the coevolutionary process. Why is language restricted to humans given that communication seems to be so useful? A plausible answer is that language is part of human cooperation. Why did the coevolutionary process come to rest leaving impressive cultural diversity in human languages? A plausible answer is that language diversity functions to limit communication between people who cannot freely trust one another or where even truthful communications from others would result in maladaptive behavior on the part of listeners.


cultural evolution; evolution of cooperation and language; evolution of linguistic diversity

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