Cumulative Cultural Evolution and the Origins of Language

Kim Sterelny*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    34 Citations (Scopus)


    In this article, I present a substantive proposal about the timing and nature of the final stage of the evolution of full human language, the transition from so-called “protolanguage” to language, and on the origins of a simple protolanguage with structure and displaced reference; a proposal that depends on the idea that the initial expansion of communicative powers in our lineage involved a much expanded role for gesture and mime. But though it defends a substantive proposal, the article also (perhaps more importantly) defends and illustrates a methodological proposal too. I argue that language is a special case of a more general phenomenon—cumulative cultural evolution—and while we rarely have direct information about communication, we have more direct information about the cumulative cultural evolution of technical skill, ecological strategies, and social complexity. These same factors also enable us to make a reasonable estimate of the intergenerational social learning capacities of these communities (on which rich communication depends) and of the communicative demands these communities face. For example, we can, at least tentatively, identify forms of cooperation that are stable only if third party information is transmitted widely, cheaply, and accurately. So we can use these more direct markers of information accumulation to locate, in broad terms, the period in our evolutionary history during which we became lingual.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)173-186
    Number of pages14
    JournalBiological Theory
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2016


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