From alarm calls to language: using simulations to look at evolutionary plausibility and cognitive complexity.
At Invited talk in the faculty of linguistics and literary sciences, University of Bielefeld
Language is a quintessentially human faculty, and although its origins are mysterious, most investigators agree that it must in some way be a product of evolution. Alarm-calling behaviour in primates is easier to explain in an evolutionary context, and is perhaps suggestive of a link with human language evolution, but there is a significant jump in complexity between the two systems that remains to be explained. As is often the case in studies of behaviour and cognition, competing theories about both alarm calls and language are under-determined by the available data. The talk will argue that computational modelling, and in particular the use of individual-based simulations, is an effective way to reduce the size of the pool of candidate explanations. Simulation achieves this in two ways: through the classification of evolutionary trajectories as either plausible or implausible, and by putting lower bounds on the cognitive complexity required to perform particular behaviours. In other words, we can ask both "could this mechanism have evolved with a selective advantage at each stage in its development?" and also "is the proposed mechanism more costly than it needs to be to achieve a selective advantage?". Theories that pass these two tests are to be preferred to those that do not. A case is made for using both of these strategies to model both animal communication and human language.
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