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The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal

By: Daniel Cloud(Author)

Columbia University Press

Hardback | Dec 2014 | #219619 | ISBN-13: 9780231167925
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NHBS Price: £29.99 $39/€34 approx

About this book

Language did not evolve only in the distant past. Our shared understanding of the meanings of words is ever-changing, and we make conscious, rational decisions about which words to use and what to mean by them every day. Applying Darwin's theory of "unconscious artificial selection" to the evolution of linguistic conventions, Daniel Cloud suggests a new, evolutionary explanation for the rich, complex, and continually reinvented meanings of our words.

The choice of which words to use and in which sense to use them is both a "selection event" and an intentional decision, making Darwin's account of artificial selection a particularly compelling model of the evolution of words. After drawing an analogy between the theory of domestication offered by Darwin and the evolution of human languages and cultures, Cloud applies his analytical framework to the question of what makes humans unique, and how they became that way.

He incorporates insights from David Lewis's Convention, Brian Skyrms's Signals, and Kim Sterelny's Evolved Apprentice, all while emphasizing the role of deliberate human choice in the crafting of language over time. His clever and intuitive model casts humans' cultural and linguistic evolution as an integrated, dynamic process, with results that reach into all corners of our private lives and public character.

"A superbly original book on an important topic and the most exciting piece of philosophy I've read in a long time. Cloud builds on major philosophical work by David Lewis and Brian Skyrms to provide a serious account of the evolution of language that both recognizes the long and complex process that links the prior state (nothing like language at all) to the end state (language of the kinds now in existence) and that responds to the points of greatest difficulty in that process."
– Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

"Starting with David Lewis and Brian Skyrms, Daniel Cloud has done much more than given us a 'just so story' about the evolution of language. He has identified the real obstacles it had to surmount and creatively drawn on the best hard science to show how it must have overcome them."
– Alex Rosenberg, Duke University

"This stimulating and engagingly-written book lucidly defends a remarkable proposal. According to it, just as a breeder of honeybees makes choices that influence the evolution of domesticated bees, all of us – by choosing which words and practices to employ, and which ones to scowl, chuckle, or roll our eyes at – actively influence the evolution of our language and culture."
– Adam Elga, Princeton University

"Daniel Cloud's The Domestication of Language brings an important new perspective to an extraordinarily difficult and important topic: the evolution of language. In contrast to almost everyone else, he focuses on the evolution of words and their meanings; on how that system as a whole expands, and becomes adjusted to the demands on the local environment, and on how children, entering that environment, are cued and supported while they acquire their first critical competences. And while language is built by cultural evolution, variation is generated not by dumb luck but intelligent tinkering. Language is the result of intelligence: an invented social and communicative technology; not invented by a Promethean genius, but multi-generationally by us all, as we respond to and experiment in our specific situations, keeping what worked. Hence the "Domestication": over many generations we have converted our original wild, native endowment of communicative capacity to something new, special, transforming."
– Kim Sterelny, Australian National University

"The Domestication of Language is a tour de force. Drawing on recent work in the philosophy of language, evolutionary biology and ethology, Daniel Cloud has fashioned a new account of the origins of our capacity for linguistic communication. Cloud's book is both a wonderfully readable introduction to the topic and a bold and original work of scholarship. Any attempt to reconstruct the origins of language will be speculative; but this is the best sort of speculation: rigorous, scientifically informed, strikingly imaginative and at the same time utterly plausible."
– Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University


1. Where Do Words Come From?
2. The Conventions of a Human Language
3. The Evolution of Signals
4. Varieties of Biological Information
5. The Strange Case of the Chimpanzee
6. The Problem of Maladaptive Culture
7. The Cumulative Consequences of a Didactic Adaptation
8. Meaning, Interpretation, and Language Acquisition
9. What's Accomplished in Conversation?
10. Recapitulation and Moral


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Daniel Cloud teaches philosophy at Princeton University. He is also the author of The Lily: Evolution, Play, and the Power of a Free Society.

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