Why did humans develop sophisticated language skills while our ancestral cousins, chimpanzees, did not? Studying childbirth could provide clues

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Credit: Angie Gray
Credit: Angie Gray

Did a “grammar module” just pop into our ancestors’ brains one day thanks to a random change in our DNA? Or did language come from grooming, or tool use, or cooking meat with fire?

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American anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy… argues that cooperative childcare played an important role in evolution. [Researcher Sverker] Johansson agrees, and thinks that the cooperation necessary was the spark for the evolution of language in turn. “Because human children are so difficult to deliver,” he writes in the book, “having help can mean the difference between life and death.” Midwives and grandmothers turn out to be key.

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Any such theory must pass what Johansson calls the “chimp test”: it must explain why chimpanzees, so genetically close to us, did not also evolve language. The idea that language evolved through status-seeking does not pass the chimp test, because chimps already have quite sophisticated politics without needing language. But this woman-centric theory does pass the test, because female chimps leave their birth troupe when sexually mature, and can easily give birth with no help. So special bonds of trust and cooperation are not necessary.

This is an excerpt. Read the original post here. 

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