This blog’s long-time emphasis on the role of cooperation and community in human evolution got some extra attention this week. My alma mater,Washington University in St. Louis, sponsored a conference on “Man the Hunted” which presented evidence that human evolution owes much more to the lineage’s role as prey than as predator. I thought about covering the event, but did not because its focus was too far from speech. However, I have also read a provocative essay in the latest issue of Group Analysis by a psychotherapist, Claire S. Bacha, on “Becoming Conscious of the Human Group” (abstract here). The paper is much too speculative to be received as the solution to any puzzles, but it is still important. I don’t believe I have ever read a more radical understanding of the nature of the “Human Group.”
The paper’s most radical assertion comes from S.H. Foulkes, founder of group psychoanalytic therapy:
individuals grow from groups; groups
do not grow out of individuals. 
Having just lived through thirty years of Republicanism and its counter-assertion that the individual creates society, I sat up.
Bacha immediately interprets the statement in terms of interest to group therapists, but the remark is provocative enough to offer food for thought on this blog’s subject as well. After all, language too emerges from a group and the great mystery of language origins is that our ancestral group never spoke, but now all people do. How do you get from a silent group to a speaking one?
The conservative temptation is to think of the transition from non-linguistic to linguistic groups entirely in terms of individuals. There was a mutation that led to mutant individuals who were selected and became a mutant group. Even with the introduction of multi-level selection (see: A Vote for Group Selection) the reason for the selection tends to be the benefit the individual brings to the group rather than what the group brings to the individual; e.g., the law-abiding individual benefits the group and therefore group survival favors law-abiding individuals.
But after all those years of Republican catastrophe, the radical reversal doesn’t seem so ridiculous: the law-giving group makes the law-abiding individual possible. When groups don’t form laws, it is impossible for group members to follow them or benefit from them. Similarly it is the language-speaking group that makes the individual poet or story-teller possible.
Both the conservative and the radical propositions seem to
make sense. Bacha sums up this relationship
between group and individual nicely. She reports that according to Foulkes
individuals and groups
exist in a Gestalt where they are
both always present but difficult to see at the same time. Sometimes the group
is in the foreground and sometimes the individual 
The speaker and the language, for example, are always together, but we can only pay attention to on one or the other at a time. Since language echoes perception (see: What I’ve Learned About Language) it is very hard to understand the two as a unit. It is like like the yin and the yang. We can visualize their mutual dependence and yet we look at one part or the other. Yet both are there. Thus, we may always have intellectual reversals in which we go from attending to the evolution of the speaker to focusing on the evolution of the speaking group without ever grasping the whole, the nut and its shell together.
Bacha approvingly quotes Ralph Stacey
who says in his book Complexity and Group
Process: A Radically Social Understanding of Individuals
… the paradox of individual minds
forming and being formed by the social at the same time. [Stacey p. 327]
Bacha refers several times to this paradox as “irresolvable,” which is alright for her because she is a clinician and can work with a paradox, even an irresolvable one, but is alarming for this blog whose ultimate hope is to understand how we came to be speakers. If the explanation rests on an irresolvable paradox, that ambition is foredoomed. The best we can hope for is the mess physics has gotten into, where we have a series of extremely accurate equations that people can use, but not understand.
Fortunately, I don’t have to despair because the paradox may not be irresolvable. First, a sentence like, “At church the individual and the group sing hymns,” draws attention to the whole gestalt and its effect. It sounds a little funny and we may have to work out the meaning, but that may be because simultaneous attention to individual and group is novel. With practice we might work it out and find it easy to think this way.
Second, contrary to Chomsky’s suggestion, the ultimate form of language is not the sentence. Storytellers have more complex forms and long ago learned how to present two figures of equal importance. Their secret lies in the little word meanwhile. Thus, the storyteller can recount the adventure of a bank robber and then, with meanwhile, switch to telling of the behavior of the detective looking for the robber.
The story of speech origins might be able to make good use
e.g.: There was a genetic change to an individual’s FOXP2 gene. Meanwhile the group depended on its ability to make specific sounds.
Then at some point the storyteller brings the two parts together. Sometimes the two parts even kiss and become one.
The memorable storyteller brings the two together by focusing attention on the conventionally subordinate part of the pair. Jane Austin's tales take their strength from their strong women. Similarly, since the conventional story has the human form the group, the more memorable telling would use Foulkes’ radical proposition and have the individual emerge from the group.
The routine way to tell the story is to say there was a genetic change to an individual’s FOXP2 gene. Meanwhile the group depended on its ability to make specific sounds. So the individual gene’s was selected. Instead, going at it from the group to individual direction, we get So the group enabled the individual to survive.
When two possible conclusions are available, conservatives will demand to know which approach is true. Moderates will say either approach is equally true and ask which one works best. Radicals will say that the approaches are mutually dependent and no account can be complete that leaves either one out.
Instead of using one dimentional time lines, scenarios need to include an awful lot of meanwhiles.