Disambiguated Indexical Pointing as a Tipping Point for the Explosive Emergence of Language Among Human Ancestors

Abstract

Drawing on convergent work in a broad range of disciplines, this article uses the tipping point paradigm to frame a new account of how early human ancestors may have first broken free from, as Bickerton calls it, the “prison of animal communication.” Under building pressure for an enhanced signaling system capable of supporting joint attentional-intentional activities, a cultural tradition of disambiguated indexical pointing (a finger point disambiguated by a facial expression, vocalization, or other gesture), combined with increasingly sophisticated mindreading circuitry and prosocial tendencies, may have sparked the first in the series of biocultural explosions that led from a simple protolanguage to fully modern human language. This account successfully integrates at least ten other competing hypotheses, and is shown to pass nine important tests that have been proposed for language origin scenarios of its type.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The others are “information storage outside the brain,” and “the appearance of technology capable of communicating and manipulating vast amounts of information outside humans.”

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Acknowledgements

Alan Collins, Stan Franklin, Peter Gärdenfors, Ulrike Griebel, Bill Griffin, Barry Hewlett, Brig Klyce, Brian MacWhinney, Chris Sinha, Sid Straus, and two anonymous reviewers all gave helpful comments on earlier versions of the paper.

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Morrison, D.M. Disambiguated Indexical Pointing as a Tipping Point for the Explosive Emergence of Language Among Human Ancestors. Biol Theory (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-020-00355-6

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Keywords

  • Critical transition
  • Human evolution
  • Indexical pointing
  • Joint attention
  • Language and gesture
  • Language evolution
  • Language precursors
  • Niche construction
  • Shared intentionality
  • Tipping point