WP 2011-06 Notes on Coordination, Game Theory and the Evolutionary Basis of Language

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Published in 2012 in Interaction Studies, Volume 13, Issue 1.

ABSTRACT. It is widely appreciated that establishment and maintenance of coordination are among the key evolutionary promoters and stabilizers of human language. In consequence, it is also generally recognized that game theory is an important tool for studying these phenomena. However, the best known game theoretic applications to date tend to assimilate linguistic communication with signaling. The individualistic philosophical bias in Western social ontology makes signaling seem more challenging than it really is, and thus focuses attention on theoretical problems – for example, coordination on lexical meaning – that actual evolution did not need to solve by improving humans’ strategic or social intelligence relative to the endowments of other primates. At the same time, issues of genuine evolutionary significance related to language, especially those around the tensions between individual and collective agency, and around intergenerational accumulation of knowledge, are obscured. This in turn leads to underestimation of the potential contribution that game theory can make to enlightening models of the evolution of human language.