The evolution of the capacity for language: The ecological context and adaptive value of a process of cognitive hijacking

Oren Kolodny*, Shimon Edelman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Language plays a pivotal role in the evolution of human culture, yet the evolution of the capacity for language—uniquely within the hominin lineage—remains little understood. Bringing together insights from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, archaeology and behavioural ecology, we hypothesize that this singular occurrence was triggered by exaptation, or ‘hijacking’, of existing cognitive mechanisms related to sequential processing and motor execution. Observed coupling of the communication system with circuits related to complex action planning and control supports this proposition, but the prehistoric ecological contexts in which this coupling may have occurred and its adaptive value remain elusive. Evolutionary reasoning rules out most existing hypotheses regarding the ecological context of language evolution, which focus on ultimate explanations and ignore proximate mechanisms. Coupling of communication and motor systems, although possible in a short period on evolutionary timescales, required a multi-stepped adaptive process, involving multiple genes and gene networks. We suggest that the behavioural context that exerted the selective pressure to drive these sequential adaptations had to be one in which each of the systems undergoing coupling was independently necessary or highly beneficial, as well as frequent and recurring over evolutionary time. One such context could have been the teaching of tool production or tool use. In the present study, we propose the Cognitive Coupling hypothesis, which brings together these insights and outlines a unifying theory for the evolution of the capacity for language.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number20170052
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1743
StatePublished - 5 Apr 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.


  • Capacity for language
  • Cognitive coupling
  • Language evolution
  • Neural reuse
  • Teaching
  • Tool-making


Dive into the research topics of 'The evolution of the capacity for language: The ecological context and adaptive value of a process of cognitive hijacking'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this