A novel account of the evolution of language and the cognitive capacities on which language depends.
In From Signal to Symbol, Ronald Planer and Kim Sterelny propose a novel theory of language: that modern language is the product of a long series of increasingly rich protolanguages evolving over the last two million years. Arguing that language and cognition coevolved, they give a central role to archaeological evidence and attempt to infer cognitive capacities on the basis of that evidence, which they link in turn to communicative capacities.
Countering other accounts, which move directly from archaeological traces to language, Planer and Sterelny show that rudimentary forms of many of the elements on which language depends can be found in the great apes and were part of the equipment of the earliest species in our lineage. After outlining the constraints a theory of the evolution of language should satisfy and filling in the details of their model, they take up the evolution of words, composite utterances, and hierarchical structure. They consider the transition from a predominantly gestural to a predominantly vocal form of language and discuss the economic and social factors that led to language. Finally, they evaluate their theory in terms of the constraints previously laid out.
“Scholarly and accessible, From Signal to Symbol gives us language without miracles—a subtle, gradualist account of the evolution of language richly informed by scientific evidence. Come for the philosophical clarity and stay for the ‘firelight niche’.”
—Cecilia Heyes, Professor of Psychology, University of Oxford
“In this rich and valuable book, Planer and Sterelny defend a plausible account of the evolution of human communication embedded in a deeply informed, interdisciplinary account of hominin ethology. The book is full of both fascinating ideas and provocative challenges to existing views. It will reward careful study.”
—Richard Moore, Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick
“Once banned by the Linguistic Society of Paris, research on language origins is now a diverse and vibrant field of study. Planer and Sterelny provide an innovative and authoritative synthesis of this expansive literature, ranging from Formal Language Theory to the evolutionary importance of fireside chats. Eschewing miraculous ‘single cause’ explanations, they develop a meticulous and incremental account of the complex origins of human language that is sure to stimulate further research and provide a key reference for anyone interested in this rapidly developing field.”
—Dietrich Stout, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Emory University
About the Authors:
Ronald Planer carried out postdoctoral research at the Australian National University from 2015 to 2020 in the School of Philosophy and is currently a Research Affiliate of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Evolution of Language in the School of Languages and Linguistics at Melbourne University.
Kim Sterelny is Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University. He is the coauthor of Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language and the author of The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique (both published by the MIT Press) and other books.