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The biological function of human reasoning abilities cannot be to improve shared knowledge. This is at best a side effect. A more plausible function of argumentation, and thus of reasoning, is to advertise one's ability to detect lies and errors. Such selfish behavior is closer to what we should expect from a naturally selected competence.
Selection through iterated learning explains no more than other non-functional accounts, such as Universal Grammar (UG), why language is so well designed for communicative efficiency. It does not predict several distinctive features of language, such as central embedding, large lexicons, or the lack of iconicity, which seem to serve communication purposes at the expense of learnability.
Episodic memory is certainly a unique endowment, but its primary purpose is something other than to provide raw material for creative synthesis of future scenarios. Remembered episodes are exactly those that are worth telling. The function of episodic memory, in my view, is to accumulate stories that are relevant to recount in conversation.
Predicates involved in language and reasoning are claimed to radically differ from categories applied to objects. Human predicates are the cognitive result of a contrast between perceived objects. Object recognition alone cannot generate such operations as modification and explicit negation. The mechanism studied by Hurford constitutes at best an evolutionary prerequisite of human predication ability.
Postulating a variety of mutually isolated thought domains for prelinguistic creatures is both unparsimonious and implausible, requiring unexplained parallel evolution of each separate module. Furthermore, the proposal that domain-general concepts are not accessible without prior exposure to phonetically realized human language utterances cannot be implemented by any concept-acquisition mechanism.
Language is the main distinctive feature of our species. Why do we feel the urge to communicate with our fellows, and why is this form of communication characterised by relevance – a feature unique in the animal kingdom? This chapter begins by stressing the specificity of human communication. We then challenge the claim that conversationalists are engaged in reciprocal altruism, arguing instead that the act of speaking must confer a selective advantage on the speaker. This advantage is elucidated by considering speech in its wider social and political context. Given what we know about ‘chimpanzee politics’ (de Waal 1982), it seems reasonable to suppose that ancestral humans were capable of forming large coalitions (cf. Dunbar 1996). We will suggest that relevant speech emerged in this context, as a way for individuals to select one another in forming alliances.
Uniqueness of Relevant Speech
The way we communicate is unique among animal species. Speech differs from nonhuman animal communication not only in its sophisticated syntax and complex semantics. An additional unique feature is that speech must be ‘relevant’.
Relevance is a precise requirement which severely restricts what is acceptable in human conversation (Dessalles 1993, 1998). By human conversational standards, most messages exchanged in animal communication are ‘boring’. Repetitive territorial signalling, individual identification, systematic threat displays – these cannot be considered genuine conversation. We expect human speakers to contribute novelty, to perform sound reasoning or to raise important issues.
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