Some friday night musings on vision and language evolution

I just stumbled across this interesting theory from Andrew Parker. Andrew is a biologist exploring the Precambrian explosion, and his personal explanation for the phenomenal growth in diversity and complexity in the Precambrian era is that it was motivated by the emergence of the eye as an evolutionary adaptation. In his Light Switch Theory he argues that the evolution of the eye marked a massive step forwards in the evolutionary arms race that shifted the emphasis from internal to external evolution. This led to all the predominantly soft-bodied creatures that were prevalent at the time evolving harder bodies. The evolution of eyes switched on the light for predatory species, making them vastly more efficient at predation and creating the evolutionary bottleneck for diversification.

What on earth has this got to do with Language Evolution? Well, two things stood out from this evolutionary account. Firstly, Parker makes an important distinction between internal and external characteristics. He argues that the development of eyes marked the passing of the emphasis of evolutionary pressures from the internal to the external. I think this is important distinction for dividing up evolutionary adaptations and one that if applied, makes language perhaps the final and most external adaptation of all. In fact, if we take the Deacon/Kirby-esque account, has been externalized to the point where it has become its own separate complex adaptive system.

The second point that stands out is the prominence it gives to the role of evolutionary arms races in another major evolutionary moment. Dawkins and Krebs famously argued that signaling was part of a similar evolutionary arms race. It also makes the case that vision improved species’ ability to identify potential prey, which is a first evolutionary step towards conspecific identification, and also an enormously primitive form of representational communication. What Parker has identified could perhaps be viewed as the early stages of a drive towards externality that has reached its ultimate expression in language, or at least can be explained in similar evolutionary terms. Lets take a wander along a very hypothetical evolutionary path…

  1. Firstly, as Parker argues, the development of eyes improves the ability of predators to identify prey.
  2. The adaptive landscape that favors externality and the ability to identify conspecifics, shifts the evolutionary emphasis to favour good eyesight and good camouflage. We get the first creeping steps of the evolution of communication, here in a predator/prey context.
  3. As Dawkins and Krebs argue, eyesight not only permits better predation, but also better cooperation. Conspecifics can use these adaptations to also avoid predation and to communicate with conspecifics. The evolutionary pressure now perhaps transfers to mind reading and deceptive signaling, as communication +  cooperation are pitted against stronger predation
  4. And from there the pathway moves into more familiar territory of language evolving from competitive signaling and increasing social complexity.

So yes, this is half-baked and quite saltational, but its an interesting musing I think. If Baker is right about the development of eyes in the Precambrian, it might offer strength to any account of language evolution that uses visual interaction as a key step in he evolution of communication. I also think there is a lot of mileage in the distinction between internal and external adaptations, and the notion of language having roots in the increasing externalization of a predator/prey evolutionary arms race.

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