Special issue on social interaction
Seven NCCR members contributed to a special issue co-edited by Raphaela Heesen and Marlen Fröhlich, presenting empirical and theoretical contributions on the idea that language was likely facilitated by a special skillset for social interaction.
As an essential aspect of our social interactions, language is both an evidence and a mystery. An evidence because we use it every day, and a mystery because we still don’t know why humans are the only ones to possess this complex mechanism. In a special issue published this week in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Raphaela Heesen of Durham University and Marlen Fröhlich of the University of Tübingen look at one of the current theories of language evolution, the Interaction Engine Hypothesis.
This hypothesis postulates that the evolution of language was facilitated by a unique set of interactional skills, summarised as the “interaction engine”, as an adaptation to the increasing demands of joint action coordination with peers. To do this, the two editors have brought together theoretical and empirical studies written by researchers from different disciplines. And since it is not possible to go back in time to understand how language emerged from fossil records, the authors used comparative methods to go back to the sources of language by comparing natural social interactions between humans (mainly human children) and non-human primates.
What’s innovative about this special issue – The comparative method breaks down disciplinary barriers. By bringing together researchers from different backgrounds, the editors open the door to new possibilities for discussion and research on the topic. “We hope that this issue will further solidify and establish the place of comparative research on social interaction in the behavioural sciences, and spur further research on interaction engine properties in nonhuman species”, explain the editors.
Why is this hypothesis central to the issue – Instinctively one might say that language is what made humans social. The interaction engine hypothesis approaches this the other way round: it postulates that it is because humans have strong social abilities that language was able to blossom. Thus, instead of focusing on language as such, the authors have the opportunity to trace the behavioural components surrounding human social-cognitive abilities and how these have evolved over time.
NCCR Evolving Language directly involved – The NCCR Evolving Language approaches language as a complex system that has emerged through a convergence of unique features (biological, neurological, cognitive and social among others). Many of these features are also widespread in the animal system. The emergence of social-cognitive abilities in humans and animals therefore seems to be an essential piece of the puzzle that is human language. Thus, seven researchers from the NCCR Evolving Language have signed four papers in the special issue.
Discover our press release on a paper with NCCR contribution
Children demonstrate early in life social skills and a strong desire to interact with their peers. They engage in social interactions more often than our closest relatives, the great apes, says a study led by researchers from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Neuchâtel.