I was listening to Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” on audiobook during SDCC when I had a funny idea.
I wonder if the evolutionary development of language could be explained as neoteny, as least in part.
Etymologically, Neoteny means something like “tending toward the young.” It refers to when a species, through natural or artificial selection, creates adults who have characteristics of their young. So, for example, “toy dogs” often aren’t just smaller than their non-Toy equivalents. They often also have characteristics of the juvenile form of their non-Toy equivalents.
Neoteny can also occur in natural selection. For example, it’s been hypothesized that human females might have less body hair than males since males would’ve selected for a more youthful appearance.
It occurred to me that one characteristic many juvenile mammals have is that they are more vocal than their adult counterparts. Anyone who’s had a cat give birth to a litter knows this to be the case.
It’s also the case that wolf pups bark, but they don’t bark when full grown. With domesticated dogs, they often bark into adulthood, but this is probably the result of selection for vocalization.
Now for the idle speculation: Imagine you have an ape baby that tries to communicate with its mother. Expressing several types of sound as having consistent meaning might be very useful. They wouldn’t even have to be clear communication – the baby could teach its mother via classical conditioning. I.e. this pitch and volume means I want food, this pitch and volume means I’m scared, etc. You can imagine a situation in which easier mother-offspring communication helps survival. If improved communication developed by this means, it could then have been used for other things that we associate more with language – fighting, hunting, trade, et cetera. But it’s conceivable that it might first arise in a neotenic way.
They question then would by why so few animals have it. Well, if language comes via neoteny, perhaps the extent to which language develops depends on what else the animal does in its life. For example, if the animals are loners as adults, in depth communication isn’t necessary. So, you’d expect animals who live and hunt in packs to be better at language.
Or, it could be that good communication, once developed neotenically has to be able to hook up with some particular pre-existing characteristic (say, foresight or abstract reasoning of some form) before it can advance to the human level.
I suspect this idea has already occurred to someone, and in all probability been rejected. But, I thought it was an interesting thought worth sharing.