Language as a coordination tool evolves slowly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


  • Tamas David-Barrett
  • Robin I M Dunbar

Research units

  • University of Oxford
  • Universidad del Desarrollo
  • Institut für Weltwirtschaft
  • Väestöliitto


Social living ultimately depends on coordination between group members, and communication is necessary to make this possible. We suggest that this might have been the key selection pressure acting on the evolution of language in humans and use a behavioural coordination model to explore the impact of communication efficiency on social group coordination. We show that when language production is expensive but there is an individual benefit to the efficiency with which individuals coordinate their behaviour, the evolution of efficient communication is selected for. Contrary to some views of language evolution, the speed of evolution is necessarily slow because there is no advantage in some individuals evolving communication abilities that much exceed those of the community at large. However, once a threshold competence has been achieved, evolution of higher order language skills may indeed be precipitate.


Original languageEnglish
Article number160259
Number of pages10
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 21 Dec 2016
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

    Research areas

  • Agent-based models, Communication efficiency, Costs of communication, Language evolution, Social coordination, Social group size

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