Language evolution from a non-anthropocentric perspective: a transdisciplinary approach for a new paradigm
Summary of the research project
In cognitive sciences, human language evolution is often addressed from a strictly humancentered perspective. That is, most studies in cognitive psychology and neurosciences that compare human to non-human animals focus on specific human cognitive components (e.g. syntax) or human neuroanatomical structures (e.g. the depth of a particular sulcus). Unsurprisingly, these human components and structures are either underdeveloped or missing in non-human animals. These absent or poorly developed properties are classically considered as partially responsible for the difference in complexity between human language and other animal communication systems, and are presented as potential “human-unique” features (the so-called “human uniqueness”). A major caveat in human-centered comparisons consists in assuming (non-explicitly) that nonhuman cognitive architectures must resemble human cognitive architecture, in parts or as a whole. Such an assumption could hold: 1) if human and nonhuman cognitive architectures had followed similar evolutionary paths and were adapted to comparable environmental, social and biological constraints, and 2) if the cognitive architecture of each species was a construction made of independent (non-interacting) cognitive components that are not sensitive to developmental and phylogenic interactive factors. Given that every species has a unique history leading to a unique cognitive architecture, it seems like a vain enterprise to search for humanspecific components in nonhuman animals. Similarly, trying to prove the absence of humanspecific components in nonhuman architectures does not make much sense either. Because it is no longer sustainable to consider humans as the normative species to which non-human animals should be compared, I would like to develop an alternative paradigm. To specify this paradigm, I suggest two lines of research. First, I propose to examine the background of the human language function, namely the inherited domain-general elements of “the machinery required to master human language” (Saffran and Thiessen, 2008), that we share with other species, in particular primates. The underlying hypothesis I uphold here is that complex and phylogenetically recent human cognitive functions, including language, are probably the result of intense re-use and recombination of subsets of inherited anatomical, cognitive, behavioral components (Anderson, 2010). Phylogenetically close species might share with humans a combination of some (but not all) of these components, as a support for communication and/or other cognitive functions. For example, the serial organization and structuration of elements that we find in the processing of syntax might not be language-specific, but could derive from short term memory capacities that might as well be involved in the planning of complex motor sequences in humans (Koechlin and Jubault, 2006), in other primates (and even in birds, including sequences of bird’s songs; Suzuki, Wheatcroft and Griesser, 2016). 4 Second, I propose to investigate the nature of complexity in the communication systems of distant species (like cetaceans) by looking at their Umwelten and Umgebung (von Uexküll, 1956). These terms express the fact that each species perceives, inhabits, and understands its world as a function of its specific sensory equipment, biology, motivation, social environment and ecology. Therefore, for understanding the communication system of a given species, one has to study how that particular species interacts and makes sense of its world (zoosemiotics, see Martinelli 2010). Then, the comparison between two distant species (on language/communication or other cognitive abilities) can be made by focusing on convergent solutions. Convergent solutions or analogies are observed when phylogenetically distant animal groups come up with similar solutions to solve similar problems. For example, mammals and cephalopods have developed over time quite similar camera-type eyes, although these two taxa have evolved separately for more than 500 million years. I propose that similarly complex communication systems have appeared separately during evolution in sperm-whales and humans. For that convergence to occur, the two species needed to meet 3 particular “conditions of possibility”: big brains, vocal dexterity / flexibility, and eusocial organization with generations overlap. Both humans and sperm-whales meet these conditions. Confronted with similar selection pressures, they might have both developed over time complex solutions for communication purposes. The convergence here lies in the complexity only, that is, the ability to flexibly combine discrete information units in a number of ways, but not in the communication system per se. My project is to better understand the communication system and combinatory abilities of sperm-whales by studying their Umwelt and Umgebung.
Marie Montant is a Teacher-Researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience in the Cognitive Psychology Laboratory in Marseille. Her research topic is human language, which she tries to understand the similarities and differences with animal communication systems. Her research has led her to question the phylogenetic evolution of language and the place of emotions in the human cognitive architecture dedicated to this function. She is part of the Comparative Cognitive Psychology team that is implanted on a primate platform of the CNRS and therefore works in close collaboration with several groups of baboons (Papio papio and Papio anubis). She is campaigning for us to stop presenting researchers with a lot of lists of publications and other prestigious thingies.