Communicating Meaning: The Evolution and Development of Language

Communicating Meaning: The Evolution and Development of Language

Communicating Meaning: The Evolution and Development of Language

Communicating Meaning: The Evolution and Development of Language


Dealing specifically with the origins and development of human language, this book is based on a selection of materials from a recent international conference held at the Center of Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. The significance of the volume is that it testifies to paradigmatic changes currently in progress. The changes are from the typical emphasis on the syntactic properties of language and cognition to an analysis of biological and cultural factors which make these formal properties possible.

The chapters provide in-depth coverage of such topics as new theoretical foundations for cognitive research, phylogenetic prerequisites and ontogenesis of language, and environmental and cultural forces of development. Some of the arguments and lines of research are relatively well-known; others deal with completely new interdisciplinary approaches. As a result, some of the authors' conclusions are in part, rather counterintuitive, such as the hypothesis that language as a system of formal symbolic transformations may be in fact a very late phenomenon located in the sphere of socio-cultural and not biological development. While highly debatable, this and other hypotheses of the book may well define research questions for the future.


The search for the biological foundations of human culture inevitably leads to language. Superficial intuition suggests that language is a sine qua non for the evolution of sociality. Without it, the diversity and sophistication of today's social systems would be unthinkable. However, there is the opposite hypothesis that the evolution of human language may in part be the result of our being thoroughly social entities: our sociality itself may have amplified the evolution of a capacity we share with other primates but developed to a degree unequaled as yet by any other species.

To date, the issues involved have been the subject of intriguing discussions within linguistics, paleoanthropology, and so forth. Most of these discussions have been restricted to the narrow confines of a single discipline and its methodological arsenal. Yet, the presumed interdependence of the evolution of language as a biological capacity and its growing significance for human culture calls for an interdisciplinary effort to explore the processes involved both on a phylogenetic and ontogenetic scale.

This is the aim of the following volume. With few exceptions, it documents a Conference at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF), Bielefeld, which took place in January 1992. This conference was organized within the framework of a research group working on the overarching theme of "Biological Foundations of Human Culture." Throughout the academic year 1991-1992, scholars from areas as different and far apart as biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, primatology, history, and philosophy of science presented and discussed recent approaches toward a biologically and sociologically founded understanding of human culture. In outlining plausible pluralistic accounts of phenomena such as the evolution of social intelligence, psychological dispositions such as trust, and the detection of cheating, or of basic social institutions such as the family, the group explicitly avoided biological as well as sociological reductionisms. This pluralistic perspective was considered a prerequisite of the project by all participants and made it possible to bring the diverse intradisciplinary approaches into fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue. The results of the project are published in three books, of which this is one.

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