Theory of Mind 2 – Language

Monkeys, chimpanzees and bonobos use grooming to calm troubled waters in their communities. They may also use grooming as a form of communication. Josep Call and Michael Tomasello (2008) find that chimpanzees use theory of mind (ToM) to ascertain social motivations. Grooming must allow for exchanges between groomer and groomed that we have replaced with language. Theory of mind (ToM) might work between groomer and groomed as follows: for the groomer, “If I groom you, will you return me the favour some time in the future? In other words can I earn social capital if I groom you this time?” and for the groomed, “What ulterior motive does this individual harbour while he’s grooming me?” Here I have sub-titles for the hidden agenda that may guide the groomer and groomed. It’s not exactly mind reading. It may be closer to a communal understanding based on tradition and repetition – a learned but subconscious method of communication passed on from parent to offspring. If the agenda were to become overt it would, of course be denied.

Robin Dunbar (1996) suggests that

language evolved among humans to replace social grooming because the grooming time required by our large groups made impossible demands on our time. Language, I argue, evolved to fill the gap because it allows us to use the time we have available for social interaction more efficiently.

Meanwhile, amongst the ToM transactions we entertain with the use of language, signals pertaining to sexual readiness rank as one of the most compulsive. Robins Burling (2005) refers to

The cognitive scientist Geoff Miller [who] has thrown another light on the question by suggesting that the evolution of the human brain was driven mainly by the demands of sexual advertising.

Moreover, in Wikipedia we learn that

Geoffrey Miller (2008), drawing on some of Darwin’s largely neglected ideas about human behavior, has hypothesized that many human behaviors not clearly tied to survival benefits, such as humor, music, visual art, verbal creativity, and some forms of altruism, are courtship adaptations that have been favored through sexual selection (see here for reference).

Do we then give away our social and sexual motivations, which we manifest through ToM, by body language, gestures and displays, even by our choice of music as well as by language? Burling (2005) suggests that

By selecting a man whose humour, imagination, language and music give evidence of a superior brain, a woman has a good chance of choosing the best genes to help her own genes to survive, not only in her own children but beyond them to later generations.

Language, like grooming in our higher mammalian cousins is only one component in a cocktail of signals used to gain social (and sexual) advantage. It could be said that we ‘groom’ with language but that our language has developed our grooming skills beyond the more basic gestures, grunts, pant-hoots and body language that other higher mammals use to signal their motivations and intentions.

Moreover, with reference to ToM and language, Carol Miller (2006) suggests that our use of language, developing as a successful form of communication

requires an appreciation of the mental states of the interlocutor. Theory of mind is necessary for communication through language, but language may in turn offer a way to learn about theory of mind. One reason language is important for theory of mind development is that mental states are unobservable.

In her summary Miller goes on to suggest that

a picture is emerging of complex interdependencies between
language and theory of mind, beginning in infancy with joint
attention and appreciation of intentionality, and continuing as
toddlers begin to use mental state terms in increasingly mentalistic ways (see here for reference).

From these differing views we may conclude that ToM governs our social aspirations including our sexual motivations. Language, under the guidance of ToM has developed as a principal means of making known our intentions. The chat-up line we use when we ‘groom’ a potential mate helps us to judge whether (s)he is the one with whom we should share our genetic code. Through our conversations we are ‘eyeing’ each other up, gauging our chances for potential propagation. And of course, this agenda remains hidden, as with the intentions of the groomer and groomed above. Language, like grooming has developed as only one in a set of tools in our ToM armoury. But because it is more versatile and more subtle than grooming, language has given us a huge advantage over our grooming cousins. More soon.


About johnderonde

UK-based charity worker in Tanzania
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