Nature 6 November 2008 Volume 456 Number 7218
Being Human: Language: a social history of words
Eörs Szathmáry & Szabolcs Számadó
Language evolved as part of a uniquely human group of traits, the interdependence of which calls for an integrated approach to the study of brain function, argue Eörs Szathmáry and Szabolcs Számadó.
Our ability to communicate using language is often cited as the element that sets us apart from other animals. Although language is not uniquely human in all aspects ˜ dogs and apes, for example, can learn the meaning of many words ˜ it almost certainly merits special status. This is because, more than any other attribute, language was probably key to the development of the set of traits that makes humans unique.
The evolution of language probably occurred in concert with the evolution of many of the other traits we associate with being human, such as the ability to fashion tools or a strong propensity to learn. If this is true, it suggests that we shouldn't be trying to understand one characteristically human trait in isolation from the others. Moreover, instead of the brain being a collection of separate modules, each dedicated to a specific trait or capacity, humans are likely to have a complex cognitive architecture that is highly interconnected on multiple levels. Enhanced communication would have aided humans at least as far back as the Late Pleistocene, around 120,000 years ago. By this point, humans were proficient at hunting large game. Indeed, the advantages that groups of hunters would have derived from better communication may have helped drive the evolution....
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