The Domestication of Language

The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal

Daniel Cloud
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/clou16792
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  • Book Info
    The Domestication of Language
    Book Description:

    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 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'sConvention, Brian Skyrms'sSignals, and Kim Sterelny'sEvolved 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53828-2
    Subjects: Linguistics, Philosophy, Anthropology, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. 1 Where Do Words Come From?
    (pp. 1-36)

    How did all the various things in the world get their names?

    And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and broughtthemunto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, thatwasthe name thereof. (Genesis 2:19)

    That’s one theory. Who stands behind the lexicographers, or the teachers, and whose laws are they enforcing when they insist that we use words “correctly” rather than “incorrectly”? Perhaps all the meanings were decreed by Adam himself, the ultimate ancestor, in a...

  4. 2 The Conventions of a Human Language
    (pp. 37-78)

    In order to say very much about David Lewis’sConvention([1969] 2002), it’s necessary to first say something about the philosophical problem that he was trying to solve there, and its relationship to the one that I am investigating here. Providing that explanation requires a brief description of a small part of the philosophical background against which the book was written.

    Lewis was explicitly responding to W. V. Quine’s “Truth by Convention” ([1936] 2004a) and the other things Quine had written on the so-called conventions of our language and their relationship to analytic truth. In turn, in “Truth by Convention,”...

  5. 3 The Evolution of Signals
    (pp. 79-90)

    David Lewis ([1969] 2002) seems to have two different stories about how conventions manage to remain stable in a human community over time. Often, he seems to say that higher-order rational expectations—my expectation that you will expect that I will expect that you will expect me to go on behaving in the same way—provide the stability. This is also the way that Thomas Schelling (1966) often speaks, and there is an element of truth in that way of talking.

    This couldn’t, however, be the whole explanation of the stable maintenance of linguistic conventions over long periods of time,...

  6. 4 Varieties of Biological Information
    (pp. 91-112)

    Should we be surprised that there is “information” and “information processing” in biological systems?

    I used to think that the spontaneous appearance of something like a computer by chance, simply as a result of atoms and molecules moving around in accordance with the laws of physics, was fantastically unlikely and difficult to explain. But I don’t think that’s actually true.

    Stephen Wolfram (2002) found a universal Turing machine, a computer that can perform, computation that any other computer can perform, that uses only two symbols (“colors”) and has only three internal states. This very simple system, with its very few...

  7. 5 The Strange Case of the Chimpanzee
    (pp. 113-142)

    We have a tendency to look at apes as if they were rudimentary humans. We try to understand their communicative abilities by asking to what extent they’re capable of masteringourlanguages. The results of these inquiries are somewhat controversial (Savage-Rumbaugh et al. 1986; Seidenberg and Petitto 1987), but they have shown two things fairly unambiguously. Chimpanzees aren’t remotely capable of mastering the full complexity of a natural human language, whether spoken or signed. If properly taught, however, they are capable of understanding and employing a much larger number of signals than wild chimpanzees use.

    This means that chimpanzees present...

  8. 6 The Problem of Maladaptive Culture
    (pp. 143-162)

    The idea that cultural evolution might not always increase the Darwinian fitness of the organisms whose culture is evolving is fairly old. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman (1981) were discussing it more than two decades ago.

    Why should we worry about this? The basic problem is that cultural behaviors are more numerous than human individuals and seem capable of reproducing more quickly than humans can. Our opportunities to have children are considerably fewer than our opportunities to imitate. With a larger population and more opportunities to reproduce, they should evolve more quickly than we do. If we look at...

  9. 7 The Cumulative Consequences of a Didactic Adaptation
    (pp. 163-182)

    It’s hard to see how a human community could let its newer members try to master, by means of simple imitation, a dangerous skill like using fire, which has the potential to injure and kill many more people than just the learner, without occasional intervention by a more experienced fire user. If modern human children can’t be trusted to play with fire without adult supervision, it isn’t likely that our earliest ancestors would have been more prudent. Certainly a chimpanzee, of any age, couldn’t safely tend a fire.

    Managing a fire has another feature that would make it difficult for...

  10. 8 Meaning, Interpretation, and Language Acquisition
    (pp. 183-202)

    It’s time to make the transition from cultural evolution in general—which I had to consider in order to make sure that the idea of domestication was a useful way of thinking about human culture of any kind—back to my original and primary focus: the evolution of human language in particular. I began this book by asking how the words we use got their meanings. But what is a “meaning”? Over the past forty years, no philosophical topic has been discussed more thoroughly, and few have been more controversial.

    In this section, my goal isn’t to engage in controversy...

  11. 9 What’s Accomplished in Conversation?
    (pp. 203-240)

    What is a conversation?

    This apparently simple question about an everyday activity we all participate in all the time is one of those unexpected puzzles about ordinary things that make philosophy so much fun. We think we know, surely we must know, it’s when two or more people . . . you know . . . say things, and . . . exchange information . . . respond to each other . . . no, we really don’t know. We have much better stories about lots of other apparently simple things we do, about why we eat or why we...

  12. 10 Recapitulation and Moral
    (pp. 241-250)

    If I haven’t yet convinced you that the hypothesis that the conventions of our languages are a form of domesticated culture is worth entertaining, nothing I can say now is likely to change the situation. If I have succeeded, anything I add here will only detract from that success. The message of my story is right on the surface: that we have more agency in deciding what our language will be like than we might suppose and that we all are working on a shared project that benefits everyone all the time, even when our actions might seem futile or...

  13. References
    (pp. 251-264)
  14. Index
    (pp. 265-278)