The Evolution of Human Communication (55+)

Human communication is obviously different from that of any other species. Only Homo sapiens can produce television shows, compose music and poetry, argue aesthetics and ethics, do standup comedy, and write annual reports, applications, scientific treatises and love letters.

We will take a scientific approach to explaining the uniqueness of these human communication processes. We will examine, according to evolutionary theory, the gradual, incremental accumulation of traits involved in communication throughout the long line of our evolutionary ancestors. We will also explore the evolutionary legacy of human communication and the implications of that legacy for understanding our human world.

Note: Back by popular demand, from fall 2017.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Evolution Refresher

The course begins with an overview of evolution, emphasizing the key principles of variance, inheritance, and selection, focusing on fitness pressures, adaptation, and the role of mutation. Important concepts such as the selfish gene, life-history, inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism are reviewed.                                                  

Week 2: How Animals Do It

We consider the world of animal communication. This includes the role of honest and deceptive signalling, across a great range of species. Among the domains of animal communication that are considered are eusociality, mating, predation, conspecific rivalry and cooperation. The key concept of evolutionary arms races is introduced.                   

Week 3: Hominin Entry into the Cognitive Niche

Building on last week’s understanding of arms races, we explore the distinctively human cognitive adaptations that have given us such competitive advantages over all other species. Capacities intrinsically tied to human communication—symbolism, language and theory of mind—are seen to be part of this legacy.                  

Week 4: We’re Not What We Think

The roles of conscious will and rationality are considered as explanations of our distinctive human communication. The evidence regarding these ideas is drawn from clinical research in cognitive science, neurology and psychology. More evolutionarily consistent explanations, drawn from speech act and argumentation theory, are considered.

Week 5: Culture, Learning and Phenotypes

The nature-nurture debate is long dead. We explore the concept of phenotype plasticity and discover how a flexible learning capacity is not only consistent with gene-driven evolution but dependent upon it. With this understanding we can reconsider the nature and function of culture.                                                                                   

Week 6: The Social Context of Human Communication

Human sociality is cooperative and competitive, simultaneously and reciprocally; it is negotiated through families, partnerships, cliques, alliances, coalitions, etc. Human dominance of our ecological niche has made these social groups the primary selective pressures on human communication. The legacy of that evolution is evident in our social institutions; for example, politics, morality and religion.   

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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