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Midwives and the birth of language
Dalarna University, Not School affiliated.
2018 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Midwives and the birth of language

Sverker Johansson

Dalarna University

Sweden

 

Language is a paradox in signal evolution theory. Cheap signals can evolve only between beings who trust each other, or who have totally aligned interests. But totally aligned interests is a utopia, and our knuckle-walking relatives generally do not trust each other? How and when did human trust evolve? This will set a baseline for language evolution – except that trust does not fossilize any more than language does.

What fossil and archeological proxies for trust can be found? Trust is a social matter, but even proxies for sociality are not trivial to identify (Johansson 2014). Probably the best proxy for human trust was identified by Hrdy (2011), in proposing cooperative breeding as a key innovation in human evolution. Ape mothers are paranoid about their babies, for good reason, and will not let anybody assist them. But in all human cultures, family and friends will routinely cooperate and help a mother with her children, and experienced women will serve as midwives in labor. This makes a huge difference for human fertility, our reproductive rate “in the wild” is roughly double that of other apes. This provides the Darwinian payoff needed to overcome the threshold of mutual mistrust, and paves the way for cheap linguistic communication.

Midwife assistance in labor may facilitate language evolution also in another way, as it eases obstetric constraints on brain size.

I will review here the fossil and archeological evidence indicating the presence among our ancestors of the modern human pattern of cooperative breeding and labor assistance. The conclusion is that the first midwife most likely was a Homo erectus… and maybe some millennia later a young erectus first cried “mama”, when left in the care of an auntie.

 

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer (2011) Mothers and Others. The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Johansson, Sverker (2014) How can a social theory of language evolution be grounded in evidence? In Lewis, Jerome, Daniel Dor & Chris Knight (eds.) Social Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2018.
Keywords [en]
language evolution, alloparenting, obstetrics
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:du-32572OAI: oai:DiVA.org:du-32572DiVA, id: diva2:1426905
Conference
Evolang 12 workshop
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-05-04Bibliographically approved

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fulltext(583 kB)4 downloads
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CiteExportLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link
Cite
Citation style
  • apa
  • ieee
  • modern-language-association-8th-edition
  • vancouver
  • chicago-author-date
  • chicago-note-bibliography
  • Other style
More styles
Language
  • de-DE
  • en-GB
  • en-US
  • fi-FI
  • nn-NO
  • nn-NB
  • sv-SE
  • Other locale
More languages
Output format
  • html
  • text
  • asciidoc
  • rtf