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Social Function Hypotheses Essay

2287 words - 9 pages

Of the many aspects distinguishing humans from other animals, language is probably the most fundamental; not only does it enable communication of ideas, opinions and emotions, it also provides us with many of the sophisticated cognitive faculties we associate with our superiority as a species. In examining the origins of language rather than attempting to determine how it functions, a more fundamental question arises of why language evolved. To investigate this question we must endeavour to find the original beneficial function of language that caused it to be naturally selected and further adapted. Conventionally, language was thought to have evolved as a faculty for exchanging information about the environment, such as planning hunts or giving instruction on how to fashion tools. This theory has since been refuted, largely by drawing on the lack of correlation between early human brain size (upon which language is contingent) and tool complexity (Wynn, 1988). Over the last decade, an alternate explanation for the advent of language has been proposed: its social function. Nonetheless, there remains much discussion as to precisely which of the many social functions was responsible for the evolution of language. I will here discuss: Dunbar’s (1993, 1996a) ‘linguistic grooming’ and ‘social gossip’ theory; Deacon’s (1997) ‘social contract’ theory; a criticism of the social function hypothesis regarding its presupposition of advanced cognition; and finally, an alternative approach based on Gould’s (1996) theory of non-adaptive spandrels.

Dunbar (1993, 1996a, 2002) maintains that language evolved as a more efficient binding mechanism for growing social groups. In justification of his theory, Dunbar (1993) demonstrates a close correlation between the relative size of the neo-cortex in all primates and the size of their typical social group; humans fit this correlation with “cognitive” group sizes of about 150 people. Furthermore, he shows that the amount of time devoted to social grooming in modern non-human primates is proportional to the respective sizes of their social groups. Problematically for the case of humans, in order to achieve a group size of up to 150 people, Dunbar’s (1993, 1996a) evidence suggests that we would need to engage in social ‘grooming’ for up to 43% of our day. Since this is unfeasible, especially for early hominids whose time was devoted to foraging for food, a novel mechanism became necessary to bond large social groups more efficiently. Dunbar argues that this mechanism was speech, highlighting the fact that in modern humans the mean amount of time spent socially interacting is 20% of waking hours – the same as the upper limit found in non-human primates. This efficiency attained from using language for social ‘grooming’ is derived from the fact that in conversation we can ‘groom’ several individuals simultaneously - typically a conversation consists of one speaker and up to three listeners (Dunbar et al., 1997). This...

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