I read a technical article the other day that discussed a way of evolving language without needing to cooperate. (The paper is available online, here.) When I first approached it my expectation was that I would present the author's argument and leave it to the readers of the blog to accept the finding or not. I changed my mind, however, when I got around to reading the paper. Working on this blog, and my book too, has broadened what I require of an account of origins.
Slightly more complex is a "big bang" theory—a single mutation rewiring some portion of one individual's brain which was then selected because of the improved thinking capacity that resulted from the mutation. This account rests on the old Greek idea that humans are distinguished by their reasoning abilities, and plainly we are smarter than apes, although apes are not idiots. They are capable of rational problem solving. I have read a variety of variations on this level theory—the most prominent version comes from Noam Chomsky—and I am often struck by the narrowness of their view..
Most people throughout most of the world and history have not based much of their activity on deep reasoning or scientific inquiry. Yet they have mastered their environments and become the dominant species in their locality. Scientists and philosophers are unusual in stressing human rationality and overlooking the many other forms of creative and adaptive behavior that characterizes human society. Big-bang type theories ignore all that.
Still more elaborate are gene-level selection accounts that involve multiple stages rather than a big bang. The richest such theories are able to place language at the center of human behavior and are able to view society in terms of altruism. The best example of this approach comes from Jean-Louis Dessalles in his book Why We Talk (see: Why We Talk: Summary). He takes a really detailed look at language, perception, and evolution, but in the end there is no room for love, for moral behavior, for art, for religion, for humor, for singing, or even for two people working together to carry a log. Those are all presented as spandrels that cannot have evolved directly.
Dessalles has defended himself on this blog by saying it is not his job (or even his place) to question orthodox evolutionary theory. It's a fair point, although gene-only selection has never been as orthodox as its defenders say. All the founders of the modern synthesis of evolution and genetics, giants like John Maynard Smith, accepted group selection as important to human evolution. A variation on group-selection, known as multi-level selection—has also gained strength since Dessalles published his book. But, as the paper that sparked this meditation was written by Dessalles himself,
The richest theories manage to at least imply room for the breadth of human essentials. One of them comes from Michael Tomassello, another from Terrence Deacon. The first focuses on cooperation, the second stresses the need for symbols that can organize a cooperative society. Their accounts differ, but in each case they point to a view of humanity that embraces its breadth. Without that as a minimum, I'm no longer interested in the theory.
Well, I can imagine one exception. If the theory of origins can explain that language is not central to the human experience, I'll have to look at it seriously. Until then …