Social Display/Section2

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Sociobiological signals theory

Krebs and Dawkins (1984) define communication as the means whereby one organism manipulates another. They claim there are two basic types of communication. Where there is common interest between signaller and receiver selection pressure will favour low-cost investment from the signaller, because it is in the interest of the receiver to detect the signal at all costs. The result is a 'conspiratorial whispering' effect. An example they give is the faint whiff of pheromone emitted by an ant when if detects the footfall of an anteater. The signal is relayed by neighbouring ants and spreads rapidly throughout the nest. Where there is conflict of interest between sender and receiver, the opposite happens. Selection pressure favours ìsales resistanceî from the receiver and a high-cost 'multi-media ad campaign' from the signaller. They cite the example of the extravagant tail and strutting display of the peacock. The best interest of the peahen is to be sceptical of such signals, and to mate only with the male sporting the finest display. This can also be explained by Zahavi's handicap principle.

Krebs, J.R., Dawkins, R. (1984) 'Animal signals: mind-reading and manipulation', in Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach 2nd edition (Oxford: Blackwell) pp. 380-403.


The handicap principle

Amotz (1987) and Avishag Zahavi (1997) pointed out that high-cost signals can demonstrate the fitness of the sender because they incur a heavy penalty in the unfit (which is why such signals are 'costly'). A familiar example is the marathon runner who completes the race dressed as a waiter and balancing a tray with filled glasses of wine (Kohn, 1999). Such a runner is most likely to feature in newsreels, impress many people, and presumably attract more potential sexual partners. On the other hand, he runs a greater risk of exhaustion and failure - a risk which is justified by the high potential reward. Thus the spectacular tail of the peacock is essentially an ‘honest signal’ because the handicap incurs significant risk of impaired fitness. Any loss of health will show in the quality of the tail, so only a peacock with a thoroughly splendid tail will demonstrate its ability to remain fit despite its handicap. Sexual selection - the preference of females to mate with the most splendid males - means that handicap displays will tend to increasing excess. Predation pressure can reverse this trend, because the most handicapped males are most likely to be eaten. This can be demonstrated experimentally. If stickleback fish are kept in a tank without predators, each generation of males will tend to have larger tails and redder bellies because females prefer such males. If a predator is introduced into the tank the opposite happens - male tails get smaller and bellies less red.

Kohn, M. (1999), As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind (London: Granta Books).
Zahavi, A. (1987), 'The theory of signal selection and some of its implications' in V.P. Delfino, ed. International Symposium of Biological Evolution, ed. V.P. Delfino (Bari: Adriatic Editrice), pp. 305-27.
Zahavi, A., Zahavi, A. (1997), The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle (Oxford: Oxford University Press).


Evolution of displays from instrumental actions

Charles Darwin theorized that many displays could have evolved from instrumental actions. The classic example is the snarl of a wolf. Such an expression of agonic affect could begin, Darwin suggested, with the simple act of baring the teeth before biting. Potential victims might then learn to predict biting from the teeth-baring gesture. The snarl can then be used to intimidate others, without the need to deliver an actual bite - an action that is seldom entirely without risk.

This theory has become more interesting since the discovery of mirror neurones in macaques (Rizzolatti et al., 1996) and evidence for a similar 'mirror system' in humans (Grézes & Decety, 2001; Rizzolatti et al., 2001; Buccino et al., 2001). Mirror neurones fire when an individual performs an action, such as reaching for or grasping a nut in order to eat it, and also when that individual sees another performing the same action with the same intention. This discovery has led to various speculations about the possible role of mirror neurones in the development of human sociality (Knoblich & Sebanz, 2006), including theory of mind (Gallese & Goldman, 1998; Fogassi et al., 2005) and language (Rizzolatti & Arbib, 1998). However, mirror networks -common to monkeys as well as humans- cannot be sufficient to explain uniquely human abilities. As Calvo-Merino et al. (2005) note, we humans, in contrast to monkeys, have many forms of shared behaviour which are far more sophisticated than grasping and manipulating objects, or even the use of specialized tools. They cite dance as an example, to which one could add many others including those listed in the table of social displays.

But should we also regard goal-directed instrumental actions as 'social displays' in their own right? They too are examples of shared or shareable behaviour, and they likewise reveal mental states - at least at the implicit level of desire and intention (Rizzolatti et al., 2006).

In view of the discovery of mirror neurones, it would seem most likely that instrumental actions play a part in the development of self- and other-awareness. However, pragmatic actions such as grasping a nut have not been modified and specifically adapted by natural selection in the service of social interactions. What has evolved, of course, is the mirror system that allows us to understand the instrumental actions of others. Once this is established then instrumental actions could become adapted as social displays even in the absence of instrumental intent, as in the theory proposed by Darwin.

Simple mimetic gesture-calls could also have evolved from instrumental actions as Darwin proposed. For example, the gorilla Kubie gives Zura a gentle push to indicate which way he wants her to go (Tanner & Byrne, 1996: in Mithen, 2005: 118). Such a mimetic signal could have originated in a more instrumental shove. Tanner and Byrne reported more than thirty types of mimetic gesture in the gorillas of San Francisco zoo, such as nudging, pulling another's hand, or miming the action of grasping a banana accompanied by intensive pleading glances and pouts (ibid. in Mithen, 2005: 118-120). The more complex mimetic abilities of humans, however, have significant potential for deception, and could not have evolved without the prior emergence of high levels of social trust and social insight - which implies the establishment of an already sophisticated system of displays and shared experience.

Buccino, G., Binkofski, F., Fink, G. R., Fadiga, L., Fogassi L., et al. (2001) 'Action observation activates premotor and parietal areas in a somatotopic manner: an 'MRI study' European Journal of Neuroscience, 13, 400-4.
Calvo-Merino, B., Glaser, D.E., Grézes, J., Passingham, R.E., Haggard, P. (2005), 'Action observation and acquired motor skills: An fMRI study with expert dancersí, Cerebral Cortex, 15, pp. 1243-49.
Fogassi, L., Luppino, G. (2005) 'Motor functions of the parietal lobe' Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 15, 626-31.
Gallese, V., Goldman, A. (1998) 'Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading' Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2, 493-501.
Grézes, J., Decety, J. (2001) 'Functional anatomy of execution, mental simulation, observation, and verb generation of actions: a meta-analysis' Human Brain Mapping, 12, 1-19.
Knoblich, G., Sebanz, N. (2006) 'The social nature of perception and actioní Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 99-104.
Mithen, S. (2005) The Singing Neanderthals: The origin of music, language, mind and body (London: Orion Books).
Rizzolatti, G., Fadiga, L., Gallese, V., and Fogassi, L. (1996) 'Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions' Brain Res Cogn Brain Res, 3, 131-41.
Rizzolatti, G., Arbib, M.A. (1998) 'Language within our grasp' Trends in Neurosciences, 21, 188-94.
Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V. (2001) 'Neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the understanding and imitation of action' Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 661-70.
Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V. (2006) 'Mirrors in the Mind', Scientific American, 295 (5), 54-61.
Tanner, J.E., Byrne, R.W. (1996) 'Representation of action through iconic gesture in a captive lowland gorilla' Current Anthropology, 37,162-73.


Language origins

Chomsky (2005: 11) describes language as a 'system of discrete infinity'. That is, phonemes can be combined to make words, words to make sentences, sentences to make narratives, and so on - in principle to infinity. The digital and combinatorial character of language distinguishes it from all other vocalizations and gestures (animal or human), which are thoroughly analogical - they use sliding scales of size, energy, rhythm, volume, pitch, timbre, etc. which, though limited in range, are infinitely variable within that range (Burling, 1993). Their meanings depend on their fluctuating qualities, and they cannot be combined and recombined in a syntactically regulated Lego-block fashion. Comparable digital and combinatorial properties appear only at revolutionary junctures during cosmic evolution (Whitehead, 1993), leading to radically new ways of organizing things - emergent orders created by such innovations as the genetic code; the periodic table of the elements; the discrete set of subatomic particles; and the mathematically ordered spectrum of quantum particles presumed to have been spewed out by the original 'big bang'. This alone is enough to tell us that a revolutionary shift occurred in the history of our species, and even suggests that language should be seen from a cosmic rather than a merely biological perspective.

The Lego-block character of language led evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker (1999: 287) to infer that humans, unlike our primate relatives, must have 'digital minds in an analog world'. Genocentric thinking [ See collective deceptions and collective deceptions in western science ] then requires our 'digital minds' to evolve from analogue minds by discrete mutational steps (Pinker) or a single miraculous leap (Chomsky). A miraculous mutation as required by Chomsky's view violates Darwinian theory, besides being logically incoherent (Knight, 2008). Pinker's view fares no better in the light of anthropological data.

The case against a gradualistic Darwinian origin of language is backed by a considerable body of literature, which has expanded at an accelerating rate since the beginning of the last century. Curiously, the theoretical and empirical work represented by this broad current within Western thought has been largely ignored by biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and others not sufficiently familiar with the cultural sciences.

In the late nineteenth century, Georg Simmel (1968) argued that human societies and institutions are sui generis emergent systems - dynamic wholes with their own internal logic and top-down causality. Emil Durkheim, whose influence on social anthropology has been deep and enduring, developed such ideas further. He counselled us to 'treat social facts as things', irreducible to lower orders of explanation such as psychology or biology (Durkheim, 1895). One of those social facts, of course, is language. What distinguishes language from the vocalizations of other animals, Durkheim (1912) argued, is displaced reference - that is, language refers to things known, imagined, or imaginary - not immediately present in the here-and-now, where they can be perceived and understood by all.

How can we encrypt an intangible, Durkheim asked, unless it is first made public through some kind of collective pantomime? In the absence of language, it is only when a group of people engages in a collective performance with self-evident meaning - when the participants know that the same meaning is present in the minds of all - that it becomes possible to refer to that meaning in a conventionalized cryptic manner. Hence, there can be no language without the prior emergence of ritual - ritual which is 'sacred' because of its consensual character and so compelling moral force. This is Durkheim's solution to what has since been called 'the problem of the first utterance' (Whiten, 1993).

We might add to Durkheim's point that it is syntax that provides language with its power of displaced reference. And without syntax, there cannot really be words. Vervet monkeys, for example, have different alarm calls which alert others to the threatening presence of specific predators - snakes, leopards, or eagles (Seyfarth et al., 1980). But there is nothing semantic about these calls. They cannot be used conversationally or in any other context than the here-and-now threat. The snake call, for example, cannot be used to refer to a snake that was seen yesterday, or a snake that might be hiding in the long grass. Nor is it possible to define the precise meaning of such signals: the leopard call could mean 'I see a leopard!', or 'Beware - predator approaching through the bushes!', or 'Danger! Climb the nearest tree!' All that counts here is that the alarm call triggers group behaviour appropriate to the immediate threat.

Language cannot be evolved or invented one specific word at a time, because words have meaning only in contrast to and in the context of other words - in the categorical and syntactic relationships between words - and because the whole idea of a cryptic system has to be invented consensually and at some historic moment.

Such a conclusion was arrived at by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1950) from a consideration of so-called 'empty referents' - words such as mana, wakan, manitou, and orenda - which are found in many languages throughout the world, and variously translated as 'medicine' or 'sacred power'. However, as Lévi-Strauss noted, the same words are also used to refer to anything new or strange - anything for which no other word can be found. Lévi-Strauss was greatly intrigued by the curious fact that a word that referred to the most powerful creative force in the universe - as conceived in indigenous cosmologies - could equally be used to refer to anything currently unnamed. In effect, empty referents refer to everything in the universe that is outside language. For him, this pointed to only one possible conclusion - a 'big bang' origin for language and cosmology. As he put it: 'the entire universe all at once became significant' (p. 60). There is therefore a universe of significance, and a 'surplus of signification' beyond our referential system of meaning, which 'divine understanding alone can soak up.' (p.62). Empty referents thus stood for the prime mover in the creation of a humanly-conceived cosmos and, at the same time, were the direct progeny of the first linguistic utterance. As later words were progressively differentiated from this 'floating signifier' (p. 63), the mother-of-all-words could continue to denote the residue of everything not yet named. But for his curious and irrational disgust for ritual, Lévi-Strauss would no doubt have been led, like his acknowledged mentor Durkheim, to infer a big bang origin for language and culture in sacred (i.e. morally and ideologically compelling) ritual.

Interestingly, speech-act theorists have developed independent arguments which point to the same conclusion (e.g. Austin, 1978; Grice, 1969; Searle, 1969, 1983). What Austin calls the 'illocutionary force' of language depends on a social contract or moral framework, a system of obligatory trust and truthfulness, backed up by some form of supra-personal authority and power. The point here is that words are cheap and it is too easy to lie - like paper bank notes, words are intrinsically worthless, and could not be accepted at face value unless backed up by a source of genuine worth (such as a gold standard) or authority (such as legal sanctions against counterfeiting) (Knight, 1998). In societies without police, gaols, and judicial systems, this can only be accomplished through ritual and ritually-constructed supernatural beliefs (ibid).

The study of human culture is not without its perils. Social anthropology, perhaps more than any other discipline in science, has suffered from the heart-ache of 'the beautiful theory demolished by the ugly fact'. Throughout the last century social anthropologists have become increasingly cautious - even phobic - about 'grand theories' of any description. At the same time, however, the accumulation of ethnographic evidence has increasingly convinced them of the sui generis emergent nature of human social orders - irreducible to simplistic Darwinism - and the 'anti-biological' character of human culture. This in itself implies a 'big bang' origin, even if many cultural scientists lack the confidence to say so.

Possibly the neatest argument for such a big bang origin was proposed by the American anthropologist Marshal Sahlins (1960). He pointed out that, in apes, sex controls society, whereas in humans, society controls sex. The universality of sexual modesty, exogamous marriage rules, and the incest taboo, point to one inescapable conclusion. At some revolutionary historic moment, an ancient primate social order must have been turned on its head.

Based on extracts from Whitehead, C. (2008) 'The human revolution: editorial Introduction to 'Honest fakes and language origins' by Chris Knight' Journal of Consciousness Studies,15 (10-11), courtesy of Imprint Academic.

Austin, J.L. (1978), How to do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Burling, R. (1993) 'Primate calls, human language, and nonverbal communication', Current Anthropology; 34 (1): 25-53.

Chomsky (2005: 11) Chomsky, N. (2005), 'Three factors in language design', Linguistic Inquiry, 36 (1), pp. 1-22.

Durkheim, E. (1895), The Rules of the Sociological Method (Glencoe IL: Free Press, 1962).

Durkheim, E. (1912), The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964).

Grice, H.P. (1969), 'Utterer's meanings and intentionsí, Philosophical Review, 78, pp. 147-77.

Knight, C. (1998), 'Ritual/speech coevolution: a solution to the problem of deception', in Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases, eds. J.R. Hurford, M. Studdert-Kennedy & C. Knight (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Knight, C. (2008) 'Honest fakes and language origins' Journal of Consciousness Studies,15 (10-11)

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1950), Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987).

Pinker, S. (1999), Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

Sahlins, M.D. (1960), 'The origin of society', Scientific American, 203 (3), pp. 76-87.

Searle, J.R. (1969), Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Searle, J.R. (1983), Intentionality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Seyfarth, R.M., Cheney, D.L. & Marler, P. (1980), 'Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: evidence for predator classification and semantic communication', Science, 210, pp. 801-3.

Simmel, G. (1968), The Conflict in Modern Culture and Other Essays, ed. F.P. Etzfern (New York).

Whitehead, C. (1993), 'A radical look at Darwinism'. Invited seminar presentation, Radical Anthropology Group, University of East London, September.

Whiten, A. (1993), Comment following Burling, R. 'Primate calls, human language, and nonverbal communication', Current Anthropology, 34 (1), pp. 25-53.


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