The fitness and functionality of culturally evolved communication systems

Nicolas Fay, S. Garrod, Leo Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Citations (Scopus)


This paper assesses whether human communication systems undergo the same progressive adaptation seen in animal communication systems and concrete artefacts. Four experiments compared the fitness of ad hoc sign systems created under different conditions when participants play a graphical communication task. Experiment 1 demonstrated that when participants are organized into interacting communities, a series of signs evolve that enhance individual learning and promote efficient decoding. No such benefits are found for signs that result from the local interactions of isolated pairs of interlocutors. Experiments 2 and 3 showed that the decoding benefits associated with community evolved signs cannot be attributed to superior sign encoding or detection. Experiment 4 revealed that naive overseers were better able to identify the meaning of community evolved signs when compared with isolated pair developed signs. Hence, the decoding benefits for community evolved signs arise from their greater residual iconicity. We argue that community evolved sign systems undergo a process of communicative selection and adaptation that promotes optimized sign systems. This results from the interplay between sign diversity and a global alignment constraint; pairwise interaction introduces a range of competing signs and the need to globally align on a single sign-meaning mapping for each referent applies selection pressure.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3553-3561
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences
Issue number1509
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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