Language as a Product of Cultural Evolution [Or Why Chimpanzees Can’t Talk and We Can]

thedomesticationoflanguagecoverThis week I finished The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, a book whose subject matter should be self-evident. Shortly afterwards I was given the opportunity to talk to Daniel Cloud, the author of said work and professor of philosophy at Princeton University.

To summarize it very briefly the book is a thorough and eye-opening examination of language as a piece of culture that has been grown and thus evolved due to choices and actions we’ve made as human beings. While our discussion of his work was incredibly thorough and actually exceeded an hour I’ve managed to cut it down to something that closely approximates a conversation, and one that I hope will convince you to pick up a copy for yourselves.

Evan: Now I will of course be putting together some form of introduction to preface this interview, but I thought it would be good for our readers to hear you describe yourself in your own words-

Cloud: I would say that I am an American philosopher carrying on the American philosophical tradition. I worked in science for a while in Russia and China which gave me some some experience with socioeconomic change; I was in those places during a period of upheaval. Research as a philosopher most interested me when I decided to quit and go back to school. Biology and evolution in particular stood out as I already knew a lot about the social sciences.

Evan: As far as The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal is concerned I would describe your primary goal as breaking down the origin of human language. Would you agree with that?

Cloud: My goal was and is to explain where language comes from, yes, but specifically the theory of cultural evolution and if it works relative to language. Language is one type of culture, and the specific type of culture I chose to focus on in this book was words as they’re discrete identities that are easy to identify and track throughout history.

The larger project is actually to track humans as being distinct from other types of living things. To return to language I present it as a tool for exploring the way cultural evolution works. It’s the application of the word “domestication” as seen in the title, the theory that just like animals and plants what we have in the present day is very different from how it began. Words are only the first thing I’ve tried to identify in this way. I could just as easily have turned to fashion or clothes or any other kind of culture.

Evan: So can we expect any future books on related topics in the future?

Cloud: Well I’ve done words, and did a pretty good job on that I think. People have found it reasonably persuasive and convincing. The story I’ve told is mostly about thinking about evolution, which involves both variation and selection. The story about words is mostly about selection, how words have incrementally become the useful tools that they are. Now we need to talk more about variation, where other pieces of culture come from.

The next logical step is to go with the arts, with sources of variation there. Maybe if I focused on music. There’s a lot of archaeology going on in Africa where we’re finding out more stuff about what’s called the Middle Stone Age, a period of 400 to 500 thousand years ago. What’s coming out is more early evidence of artistic activity.


There’s a mineral called ochre that was used in large quantities for face painting, and they’re finding it in archaeological sites from half a million years ago. We now know that people were decorating their faces for much longer than we used to think. How that evolved will tell us a lot about human nature.

Music, to branch off of that, is pretty puzzling. There must be some kind of specialized mental faculty for it. It’s clearly important because we use the same part of our brain for thinking about mathematics, but music came first. It’s an important part of human cognitive capability to create music. What I want to look at is the co-evolution of music, looking at songbirds for example. Comparing the cultural products we have today to see how we’ve changed.

<at this point Cloud apologized for going off on a tangent, which I told him was not a problem as it was both relevant and fascinating>

I could write something pretty interesting about that. And this is the next project rather than the last project. There’s another guy working on the same thing, Daniel Dennett, another American philosopher who’s better known than I am. There’s a world of philosophers doing this, studying psychological, anthropological, cultural evolution. It’s a great time where we have the mathematical models we need to figure out cultural evolution in an organic way. I’ve been working on it for a while, been up to speed in the field with lots of projects like this but there’s way too much to do. We’re coming up with ways of approaching these problems faster than we can get to them, it’s a race.

Someone’s going to come up with a theory about the evolution of music. We have the raw materials so it’s kind of exciting; music has been a mystery for so long. It’s hard to figure out what a stone age person would be doing. There’s a funny connection between language and music, because somehow music is language without meaning, a piece of music has a syntax without meaning-

Evan: There have definitely been observations made about mood conveyed in music, like how minor chords are more sad and sombre and major chords more uplifting and happy.

Cloud: What’s very important is that music isn’t about anything in particular, the idea of absolute music being an experience that doesn’t refer to any particular thing in the world. It’s the same cognitive apparatus for language but other part of the brain are used as well. They’re just close enough that there are probably parallels and linkages but it’s its own succinct thing.

The other big thing to do this summer is looking at art as an important aspect of human nature and its role in human evolution and looking for parallels in nature. Whales are an interesting case as they appear to have elaborate musical culture. We don’t know as much about them as we’d like to, but we are searching for parallels in these large-brained animals that aren’t closely related to us. There may be some cross-species way observation to be made.

Evan: In comparing the evolution of a piece of culture like music or art to language I suppose the assumption would be that they develop in the same way-

Cloud: It all relates to Darwin’s idea about human intelligence. There was this problem they had about human intelligence, how people were smarter than they needed to be for the kinds of lives they were living. Stone age people are shown to have primitive technology but to actually be quite culturally advanced. In visiting similar Indonesian groups it’s been found that they are just as smart as their counterparts in the English world. We appear to have more than nature requires for us to be hunter gatherers. How did we get these strange capabilities for math, for flying to the moon, etc.

Darwin’s answer is when you see things like that in nature [referring to advanced human intelligence -Evan] what it usually is is an exaggerated feature brought about by sexual selection. An example would be peacocks showing off their tails to peahens. The peahens consistently preferred peacocks with brighter and larger tails, and that’s how tails got bigger and brighter. It must be the same with human beings, some form of competition in regards to how smart we are. The ability to do things like singing and reciting poetry and dancing really well or being a good storyteller being a way of attracting others.


So we have a mathematical way of modelling sexual selection when thinking about human beings and their artistic capabilities, especially in relation to a model of peacocks and peahens. The hypothesis is human intelligence as a result of runaway sexual selection for artistic creativity. An easy way of looking at this is how we intuitively understand that rock stars are very sexy, their musical performance resulting in them getting laid. Stemming back through history a half million years, over and over again, this could produce something distinctly elaborate as human musical capability.

It changes the lens through which we view the fine arts as typically they’ve been seen as the refined product of human civilization, the culmination of human progress. Having nothing to do with sex, in other words. So we kind of have to see aesthetic philosophy in a different light which is in turn another interesting project.

Really that project is the same project. How human beings became so insanely good at creating culture.

Evan: Speaking of created culture, I was wondering if you consider yourself a moviegoer?

Paul: I suppose you could say that. I do enjoy watching movies but I don’t go out of my way to keep up with them, really.

Evan: One work in particular kept cropping up as I was making my way through this book, particularly in your explanation of why humans have managed complex spoken language and other primates haven’t. Considering last summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in which the apes were capable of speech, what would actually have to take place for that to become a reality?

Cloud: The question is how you would have to change chimps  to make them capable of human culture. There is a single biggest difference, what you’d have to modify, the most striking psychological difference that you could change to produce a truly astonishing result. What it comes down to is that there is no way for a chimpanzee to understand if I’m pointing something out.

They can point to things that they want, or at least they can learn to do that, but they can never be taught to understand the idea of someone helping them. There’s an experiment where bucket is placed over food to hide it and the experimenter points at the bucket. Human children and dogs will understand and approach it, but a chimp won’t pay attention or even really look at it.

What’s missing isn’t the mental capability. A chimpanzee doesn’t expect you to help them to that extent or in that way. Conversely what humans are in the habit of doing is managing each other’s attention. “Hey, look at that.” “That’s what she’s wearing?” We direct the attention of people in our social groups at one thing or another.

Chimpanzees don’t do that, they don’t trust each other. If one is trying to get the attention of another the other chimpanzee won’t look. They’re not trusting of each  other. When they want one to look at something they won’t point, they’ll make a noise with a leaf which we call “leaf clipping”.

We’re able to trust each other in that it’s moralized. We’re not supposed to lie to one another when we’re talking, and that makes talking possible for humans. If someone lied all the time that would result in their ostracism.

If we wanted to make other primates capable of human communication we would need to give them something like human moral sense. They would have to care about whether or not the the things they were signalling to each other were true, and that they would be helpful. They would need to help the other chimps out with problems.

The original difference may have been that we began eating something different, something that required cooperation like large game or certain produce. This led to us having to work together which would in turn require cooperation. A chimpanzee mother won’t assist their own child in using a hammer stone to open a nut and this results in their learning taking much longer. It can take several years, more than five years, for them to figure it out on their own.

Really it has more to do than the animals just being “smarter”. They need to change the way they interact with and view each other as well.

Evan: One thing that a lot of kids [and some adults too, to be fair] believe, partly due to children’s books and TV shows, is that whenever animals make sounds at one another it constitutes speech.

Like a cat meowing at another would approximate equivalent human words. Your book does a lot to teach that this is pretty far from the truth.

Cloud: Well we don’t know what’s happening with dolphins and killer whales. Their communication could be just as complicated as what we’re doing, so we don’t know about animals in general. Elephants are also pretty puzzling. But other than a few examples of large-brained animals that includes human beings we don’t know if it’s just us or one or two others. Apart from that it’s true that the possibility of complex communication between animals in nature is very sharply limited. They can’t trust each other at all. The conventional way of thinking is that they’re too stupid.
It’s not a matter of brain size, though. Ants and bees have very elaborate forms of communication, but they can also trust each other.

Evan: Like the honey dance that bees do to tell each other where the flowers with lots of nectar are-

Cloud: That’s right. Where there is trust and shared goals there’s elaborate communication. In most animals they can’t trust each other so they’re separate individuals. Most things are set up individually, as biological individuals instead of cells in larger organisms. The competition they have with each other makes cooperation difficult. Animals in nature are always producing more offspring to further their existence and so there’s lots of competition. The place where most animals end up in the universe is that they can’t trust other animals all that much. There’s also not much to talk about, everyone already knows everything they need to.

The place where there’s a lot of communication is inside of cells. The communication in a human cell is every bit as complex as human language. The difference in humans is that we’ve managed to extend complex signals beyond the boundaries of an organism.

Evan: There’s a line near the end of the book that says “Once your audience laughs, you have them” (220). Given the how dense the subject matter you were covering can be how important was it for you to insert humour throughout?

There were a number of lines that stuck with me due to my finding them pretty funny, one of them in particular being: “When I say “Scalpel” in an imperative mood, I expect to soon inhabit a world that contains a scalpel in close proximity to myself, and will be disappointed if I don’t eventually see one” (58).

Cloud: For this book I had to compromise on that value a bit. What I had to do first was come up with a version that was as reasonable as possible in order to fully convince not just philosophers, but people from other sciences: anthropologists, psychologists, etc. In this book the value of being entertaining and dwelling on subjects that people find personally interesting took a backseat to producing a theory that would work for people, specifically scientists.

There is a section about humor, which was sort of me moving ahead to particular problems before getting the general theory out there. What you can see now is once I have this down I have the walls and castles built, I can write more interesting stuff, maybe even do a whole section on humor in an accessible style. Build the defences first before you can build the garden. Now I could do humor if I wanted to and get away with it.

It is incredibly important. It’s important to be a little funny to convey to the person that the project that you’re doing is not just for the professionally interested. It ought to be fun to read the thing, but it can’t just be a piece of humor. I could write stuff that is funnier or stuff about being funny, which is actually an incredibly important philosophical topic. It shouldn’t be neglected.

The ridiculous is very understudied in the philosophical tradition. We’re right at the point where we have the material, the pieces to the puzzle. We can solve that problem now. It’s a very interesting problem that both myself and Daniel Dennett are looking into because understanding it would do a lot to helping us understand human psychology.

Evan: One thing I noticed when reading through your book was that although it covers the evolution of language, of words either succeeding or falling out of use due the choices we make as a culture, there weren’t any concrete examples mentioned. Was there a specific reason for this?

Cloud: The problem wasn’t a lack of examples, there are actually too many. Once you start thinking about it there’s a real wealth of data. Regardless of how old you are we’re living in a period of history where various kinds of slang are simply not use anymore. You don’t really hear people use the word “square” anymore to refer to people or things that are uncool. If you were to use it now the reaction would be that people would laugh, wondering why you’re using weird 1930s countercultural lingo, some kind of beatnik reference.


Everyone has the opposite of that happen in their everyday experience: hearing some new word and thinking it’s cool. Fashion is the same way in that trends come and go. It was brightly coloured sneakers last summer, and this summer it will be something else. At this moment in time there’s the terrifying existence of big data, we can see twitter posts and what words are used, the way they fall in and out of usage. Our ability to math this social dynamic has raced ahead of the theory, we have real-time observation.

Evan: I hadn’t considered this before, but I suppose there’s also the fact that by not making specific reference you ensure that your book won’t become dated, that there will be a certain timelessness to it.

I do have one last question just to wrap us up, and it has to do directly with the topic of your book, about language. There are a few illustrations you make to convey how cultural conventions come into being, like driving on the right side of the road, and I noticed that you tended to switch back and forth between male and female pronouns instead of opting for a gender neutral one-

Cloud: The principle of some kind of gender neutrality is a good one. I had to find some way to accommodate that but still work with a certain English style; in a lot of instances it just didn’t sound right. We’re actually supposed to use “they”, the Columbia University style guide does use that. When I was writing this, in the beginning, the editor would actually go through and changes all my “hes” and “shes”, change every single one of them.

In some cases, however, it was very purposeful. For example, I was never talking about genderless chimpanzees. It doesn’t make much difference in humans, but that’s because behaviour between the two species is dissimilar. In my mind I was always referring to a specific, concrete chimp. It had to be a realistic one, not a genderless one. I had to stick with the reality of what I was talking about.

No problems in chimp society can be fixed with genderless pronouns. The problems will remain no matter how we talk about them.

I will admit that I was suspicious of myself. I noticed that in many cases it was a male chimp that was doing something awful, that whenever a chimp was doing something really terrible it was a he and not a she. But that’s also simply accurate. It’s not a question of being a reflection of humans but being a reflection on chimps. Three fourths of the time the chimp will actually be male, so you kind of have to strike a balance while also considering that they’re two very different species we’re talking about.

The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal is available in both hardcover and ebook format on Amazon, Columbia University Press, and other places on the internet where books are sold.

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