Language: Costs and benefits of a specialized system for social information transmission

Daniel Nettle*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Language is often thought of as the crowning human adaptation, the one that allowed Homo sapiens sapiens to conquer the globe. The assumption underlying such ideas is that verbal transmission of information provides unalloyed benefits by reducing the costs of learning about the environment. However, this raises the question of why no other species has discovered such a good trick. I argue that verbal transmission is only likely to be adaptive in a restricted range of circumstances. Even then it cannot be exclusively relied on, and it causes problems of deceit and instances of maladaptation. We should expect natural selection to have made us discriminating evaluators of verbal information who ultimately trust the evidence of our senses. Nonetheless, once language has become widespread, it can increase human adaptability by increasing the efficiency of individual learning.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSocial Information Transmission and Human Biology
PublisherCRC Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781420005837
ISBN (Print)9780849340475
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2006

Cite this