Language Through Kinship and Reciprocity

Shared information is multiplied, whereas shared food is divided. By giving you a useful fact, I do not automatically lose the benefits of knowing it. Potentially, this information-sharing effect could have made it rather easy for language to evolve through kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Our ancestors lived in small, semi-stable groups full of relatives and friends. By evolving the ability to share information with them, our genes and our social relationships would have benefited.

This sounds useful, and it is probably mostly right. However, there are still conflicts of interest. Relatives do not share all of the same genes, so do not have identical evolutionary interests. Likewise for friends in a reciprocity situation: there is always the temptation to cheat by receiving more than one gives. Given these conflicts of interest, we can look at the costs and benefits of language to see whether people's real behavior follows the predictions of kinship and reciprocity models.

As long as language is viewed purely in terms of information transmission, it will be seen as bringing more benefits to the listener than to the speaker. The speaker already knows the information being conveyed, and learns nothing new by sharing it, but the listener does gain information by listening. Information is still like food in this sense: it is better to receive than to give. In the bare-bones kinship and reciprocity theories, the principal benefit of language must be to the listener. This leads to an interesting prediction: we should be a species of extremely good listeners and very reluctant talkers. We should view silent, attentive listening as a selfish indulgence, and non-stop talking as a saintly act of altruism. People should pay huge amounts of money to engage in the vice of being psychotherapists, who get to hear people's innermost secrets while having to reveal little of themselves.

This does not describe the human species as I know it. Watch any group of people conversing, and you will see the exact opposite of the behavior predicted by the kinship and reciprocity theories of language. People compete to say things. They strive to be heard. When they appear to be listening, they are often mentally rehearsing their next contribution to the discourse rather than absorbing what was just said by others. Those who fail to yield the floor to their colleagues are considered selfish, not altruistic. Turn-taking rules have emerged to regulate not who gets to listen, but who gets to talk. Scientists compete for the chance to give talks at conferences, not for the chance to listen. For psychotherapists to use the "non-directive" methods advocated by Carl Rogers—in which the therapist says nothing back to the client except paraphrases of what they have heard—requires an almost superhuman inhibition of our will to talk.

Nor do the kinship and reciprocity theories predict our anatomy very accurately. If talking were the cost and listening were the benefit of language, then our speaking apparatus, which bears the cost of our information-altruism, should have remained rudimentary and conservative, capable only of grudging whispers and inarticulate mumbling. Our ears, which enjoy the benefits of information-acquisition, should have evolved into enormous ear-trumpets that can be swivelled in any direction to soak up all the valuable intelligence reluctantly offered by our peers. Again, this is the opposite of what we observe. Our hearing apparatus remains evolutionarily conservative, very similar to that of other apes, while our speaking apparatus has been dramatically re-engineered. The burden of adaptation has fallen on speaking rather than listening. Like our conversational behavior, this anatomical evidence suggests that speaking somehow brought greater hidden evolutionary benefits than listening.

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