The evolution of the capacity for language: the ecological context and adaptive value of a process of cognitive hijacking
Language plays a pivotal role in the evolution of human culture, yet the evolution of the capacity for language—uniquely within the hominin lineage—remains little understood. Bringing together insights from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, archaeology and behavioural ecology, we hypothesize that this singular occurrence was triggered by exaptation, or ‘hijacking’, of existing cognitive mechanisms related to sequential processing and motor execution. Observed coupling of the communication system with circuits related to complex action planning and control supports this proposition, but the prehistoric ecological contexts in which this coupling may have occurred and its adaptive value remain elusive. Evolutionary reasoning rules out most existing hypotheses regarding the ecological context of language evolution, which focus on ultimate explanations and ignore proximate mechanisms. Coupling of communication and motor systems, although possible in a short period on evolutionary timescales, required a multi-stepped adaptive process, involving multiple genes and gene networks. We suggest that the behavioural context that exerted the selective pressure to drive these sequential adaptations had to be one in which each of the systems undergoing coupling was independently necessary or highly beneficial, as well as frequent and recurring over evolutionary time. One such context could have been the teaching of tool production or tool use. In the present study, we propose the Cognitive Coupling hypothesis, which brings together these insights and outlines a unifying theory for the evolution of the capacity for language.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Bridging cultural gaps: interdisciplinary studies in human cultural evolution’.