Self-domestication and language evolution
Thomas, James Geoffrey
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This thesis addresses a major problem facing any attempt to account for language structure through a cultural mechanism: The processes required by such a mechanism are only possible if we assume the existence of a range of preconditions. These preconditions are not trivial, and themselves require an explanation. In this thesis I address the nature and origin of these preconditions. I approach this topic in three stages. In the first stage, I pull-apart the functioning of one prominent cultural account of language evolution—the Iterated Learning Model —to identify the preconditions it assumes. These preconditions cluster into two main groups. The first concerns the traditional transmission of the communication system. The second relates to the emergence of particular skills of social cognition that make learned symbols and language-like communication a possibility. In the second stage, I turn to comparative evidence, looking for evolutionary analogies that might shed light on the emergence of these preconditions. Two case studies—the Bengalese finch and the domestic dog—are considered in detail, both of which show aspects of one of the preconditions emerging in the context of domestication. In each case I examine what it is about the domestication process that led to this outcome. In the final stage, I consider whether this same context might explain the emergence of these preconditions in humans. The claim that humans are a self-domesticated species has a long history, and is increasingly invoked in contemporary discussions of language evolution. However, it is often unclear exactly what this claim entails. I present a synthesis and critique of a range of empirical and theoretical perspectives on self-domestication. I conclude that human self-domestication is a coherent concept, and that there are several plausible accounts of how it might have occurred. The realisation that humans are a self-domesticated species can, therefore, provide some insight into how a cultural account of language structure might be possible at all.