Chapter 1. Introduction

In this essay I look at the conceptions of evolution by natural selection employed in contributions to the 'origins and evolution of language' debate - in particular, in contributions to Section 1 of Knight, Studdert-Kennedy and Hurford (2000) (henceforth KSH2000). The conceptions in question are characteristic of (almost, see below) all of the contributions to all of the collections resulting from the Evolution of Language conferences, i.e., Hurford, Studdert-Kennedy and Knight (1998), KSH2000, and Wray (2002) (see Knight quote below).

From the outset it will be clear that I take a different view of what constitute the "important" aspects of the work of Charles Darwin. However, at no stage am I directly questioning the validity of Darwin's overall thesis. I merely question how Darwinian concepts should be applied in the context of discussions as to the origin and development of language. And clearly, if we are to apply Darwinian concepts in this context we require to have a clear notion of just what those concepts are.

My essay's main task is to question the utility of the notion of competition/selfishness in discussions of the evolution of language. In section 1 I look closely at the KSH2000 contributions and that show all[6] of them adhere roughly what we might call "selfish gene" (Dawkins, 1976) theory applied to behaviour [7] . My discussion assumes a working knowledge of "selfish gene" Darwinism.

In section 2 I look at a wide variety of cooperative phenomena in Nature and review a number of opinions that appear to directly contradict that part of Darwin's theory which relates to the ubiquity of competition in Nature.

Section 3 ponders how we might understand this apparent contradiction and suggests (in the spirit of the later Wittgenstein) that we think of some of Darwin's terms not in their everyday literal sense, but in a larger metaphorical sense.

What I am offering in sections 2 & 3 of the essay is admittedly a biased and incomplete view of the range of interactions we observe in nature. The bias is deliberate for, especially in an essay of this size, it is unnecessary to show that many interactions in nature are "competitive" (at least in the spirit of Kropotkin (1914[8][1902]). What I question is whether we should make grandiose statements about the ubiquity, innateness or necessity of competition.

By showing that cooperation is not an aberrant feature of complex human interaction, but rather a feature of many interactions between different species and within species throughout the natural world, I offer a change of perspective. We can thus no longer make claims as to the "basic" cooperativeness or competitiveness of Nature. They exist side by side as valid interpretations we may make from our observations. A more complex and sophisticated understanding of the Struggle for Existence is readily available. We need not have all our intellectual eggs in the "competition" basket. Certainly, though, the range of sensible topics for discussion in the Evolution of Language debate will shift. It will no longer be adequate to assume our predecessors were selfish or competitive and therefore think of the complex system of cooperative communication as anomalous. Instead of inventing highly unintuitive explanations for why we came to control our imagined "savagery", more productive use of our time might be made inquiring as to how we got from how we were then, to how we are now[9].



[6] The contribution of Burling (2000) is excepted here as his contribution is not in the same vein as any of others, and consequently, it should be understood that none of the criticism levelled at the other authors has any relevance to his work.

[7] In this essay I use the terms ““selfish” theorist” (or similar) and “sociobiologist” interchangeably. Though this is, of course, problematical, much of the literature I have encountered does this – see, for example, Sahlins (1976) or Schwartz (1986).

[8] The only edition of this book I could find has no date of publication, though the University of Canterbury library puts it somewhere in the 1970’s. It appears to be a reprint of the 1914 edition with a foreword by Ashley Montagu and I proceed on the basis that the pagination refers to this edition. It appears in the References as Kropotkin (1914[1902]). 1902 was the year of first publication.

[9] I have refrained from reviewing or commenting on the widely accepted links between traditional and “selfish” Darwinism and free-market capitalist ideology for I believe it superfluous to our needs. For the interested reader Schwartz (1986) provides a comprehensive and erudite look at the influence of capitalist theory on modern thought, and how the success of this field in describing the modern Western economic world has been borrowed by other disciplines as an explanatory framework. In an essay of larger size I would have included this in section 3, along with the other discussion on metaphor and model.


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