Social evolution of pragmatic behaviour
Scott‑Phillips, Thomas C.
Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that addresses the relationship between language and its external environment – in particular the communicative context. Social evolution (or sociobiology) is the branch of the biological sciences that studies the social behaviour of organisms, particularly with respect to the ecological and evolutionary forces with which it must interact. These two disciplines thus share a natural epistemic link, one that is concerned with the relationship between behaviour and the environment. There has, however, historically been no dialogue between them. This thesis attempts to fill that void: it examines pragmatics from the perspective of social evolution theory. Chapter 1 gives a brief introduction to the two fields and their key ideas, and also discusses why an evolutionary understanding of pragmatics is crucial to the study of language origins. In chapter 2 the vexed question of the biological function of language is discussed. Responses are given to the claims, common in the evolutionary linguistics literature, that the processes of exaptation, self‑organisation and cultural transmission provide alternatives to natural selection as a source of design in nature. The intuitive conclusion that the function of language is communication is provisionally supported, subject to a proper definition of communication. Chapter 3 reviews previous definitions and consequently argues for an account predicated on the designedness of signals and responses. This definition is then used to argue that an evolutionarily coherent model of language should recognise the pragmatic realities of ostension and inference and reject the code‑like idealisation that is often used in its place. Chapter 4 observes that this fits the argument that the biological function of language is communication and then addresses the key question faced by all evolved communication systems – that of evolutionary stability. The human capacity to record and remember the past behaviour of others is seen to be critical. Chapter 5 uses the definition of communication from chapter 3 to describe a very general model of evolved communication, and then uses the constraints of that model to argue that Relevance Theory, or at least some theory of pragmatics with a very similar logical structure, must be correct. Chapter 6 then applies the theoretical apparatus constructed in chapters 2 to 5 to a crucial and topical issue in evolutionary linguistics: the emergence of learnt, symbolic communication. It introduces the Embodied Communication Game, an experimental tool whose basic structure is significantly informed by both social evolutionary and, in particular, pragmatic theory. The novelty of the game is that participants must find a way to communicate not just the content that they wish to convey, but also the very fact that a given behaviour is communicative in nature, and this constraint is found to fundamentally influence the type of system that emerges. Chapter 7, which concludes the thesis, recounts and clarifies what it tells us about the origins and evolution of language, and suggests a number of possible avenues for future research.