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LostInParadise's avatar

From an evolutionary point of view, why did humans develop language?

Asked by LostInParadise (17694 points ) December 15th, 2013

I was listening to a TED talk about language. The speaker said that we developed language because because we have different work specializations and we needed language for bartering. I am not convinced of that. Hunter-gatherers all have language and they are pretty much equal in what they do.

All groups of humans have language. There is strong evidence that we are hard-wired for it. Groups of people in isolation have been known to spontaneously create a language, complete with rules for grammar.

Is the function of language primarily social? Single individuals in isolation do not develop language. Wittgenstein stated that there is no such thing as a private language.

It has been suggested that language is inseparable from thought. Maybe language is just a byproduct of the ability to do abstract thinking.

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12 Answers

ETpro's avatar

Animals use language to a degree as well. They use it for protection, hunting and gathering, teaching their young, passing directions to others of their species, etc. Even creatures as small as ants communicate where food is, as do bees. Language has been developing over a very long time. Bacteria even communicate.

Whether they made it to TED or not, anyone saying we evolved something because we needed it for X, Y or Z to develop is demonstrating a very profound misunderstanding of what Darwin meant by natural selection. Natural selection is not an elegant, parsimonious climb up a ladder to some premapped perfection. Natural selection moves forward, sideways and often even backward. It’s horrendously wasteful. 99.9% of all species that ever evolved have gone extinct. If evolution followed some cosmic master plan to serve each creature up just what it was going to need for the next stage of its road-map to perfection, we would find ourselves in a very different world from the one we inhabit. And it wouldn’t have taken us 4 billion years to get where we are today.

LostInParadise's avatar

I agree with what you said, but the very sloppiness of the evolutionary process would suggest that language must have offered an advantage. It is too complex a process to have come about all at once by pure chance. It must have come about in stages and there must have been some strong reason at each stage for it to continue to progress.

Here is a thought. The human hand has great dexterity, allowing for sophisticated use of tools and weapons. Maybe language developed as a way of passing on knowledge regarding the construction of and use of tools.

ETpro's avatar

Oh, I never said language did not offer an advantage. Anything you find from single-celled organisms up through very complex organisms like insects, birds and mammals obviously offers and advantage. But that advantage did not first show up in e-coli so that humans would someday be able to barter and talk about how to construct tools. It just didn’t. It was favored by natural selection because it allowed them to form colonies, work cooperatively, and thus survive to pass on their genes for communication.

Seek's avatar

Because the prehistoric caveperson that was able to grunt an intelligible warning to his kids to stay in the gorram tree while he fights off the sabretooth tiger was more likely to have kids who survived to have more kids.

zenvelo's avatar

@LostInParadise You messed up your supposition by definition in this sentence: Hunter-gatherers all have language and they are pretty much equal in what they do.

In a group such as that, how was it decided who was hunting and who was gathering? And how did hunters communicate to take down a large animal with primitive weapons?

To me language is how one person communicates with another. And evolving sounds is just a lot easier than gestures.

Jonesn4burgers's avatar

Certainly speech is an extension of thought. In order to have a complex thought, we have to be able to describe it to ourselves, so it would follow that we then find a way to share that thought with others.

KaY_Jelly's avatar

If I was the creator, I certainly could see the purpose in giving speech to pieces of my creation for the purpose I intended.

The intended purpose IMHO was to spread God’s word.

pleiades's avatar

I see it as a survival factor. Without having to draw on the dirt, we can describe our next move in a small group and determine ultimately how we will capture the boar within a 100 yard radius.

Pandora's avatar

I think it came out of necessity. We needed names for things so we could communicate better and become more efficient.

If you are sending out a party to gather and a party to fish and a party to hunt, than it would get really annoying to point at everyone every time. You need speech also to resolve problems. Humans are slow but we eat a lot, so the quicker they could cooperate and decide who was doing what the faster you got to eat. Survival depended on working as a group. Speech helps to facilitate the process.

How do geniuses know what they know? Some can just suddenly play instruments without any formal training at a very young age. Language probably came about the same way. You put two sounds together and you get a word.

It probably started with babies. They are quick to associate certain sounds with things. Lets take mama. I’ve heard tiny little babies make the sound of mama or papa before they are too young to actually be coping the sound. Parents thinks it means the kid is a genius. They just like making sounds. My niece baby must of made at least 10 different sounds when she was 3 months old. When she was really happy she would make a sound that required her to roll her tongue like a rolling r. I guess she liked the feel of it and kept doing it. No one taught her that. But we would copy the sound and she would get all excited and laugh.
Now do that with a tribe that is learning language. They now associate that sound with being happy or excited. A word is born. It helps that our brains have also developed and that our vocal cords work the way they do.

LostInParadise's avatar

@zenvelo , Among hunter-gatherers, the men do the hunting and the women do the gathering. I am not saying that men are necessarily better hunters or that women are necessarily better gatherers. That is simply the universal pattern. Women are not only saddled with the responsibility of raising children, they are also expected to bring fruits and vegetables to the table.

mattbrowne's avatar

Better cooperation in a new hostile environment.

JimTurner's avatar

Language is important in order for individuals working as a team to achieve a specific goal.
As a youngster I worked in a restaurant with all Mexicans. In order for us to work and get to know each other I had to learn some Spanish words and in turn I taught them some English words.

In the process we became close friends and shared a few good laughs.

Each day we would say “mucho trabajo poco dinero”

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