BSc Psychology

Year of entry: 2020

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Course unit details:
Sociality & Communication: Evolutionary Perspectives

Unit code PSYC31131
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Division of Psychology and Mental Health
Available as a free choice unit? No


Humans and other group-living species, such as bees, songbirds, nonhuman primates and dolphins (to name a few) face a number of challenges. 



Building on previous knowledge (see recommended PSYC21031) the unit aims to provide the student with the ability to fully appreciate and critically discuss the following issues:

·      Why live in groups?

·      How do animals solve challenges of group living?

·      Have humans evolved a unique solution to the problem of cooperation?

·      How can game theory help us understand cooperation?

·      How does communication figure into the equation?

·      How do other animals communicate?

·      In what ways is human communication special?

·      How do humans learn to communicate and to read others’ intentions?

·      What is the role of imitation in communication?

·      What is the relationship between gestures and speaking in human evolution and development?

·      How does communication aid cooperation, and how does cooperation facilitate the evolution of communication?

·      What is culture, why is it important for sociality, and do other species exhibit it?



The course will comprise of 11 hours of lectures with additional seminars and reading groups.

  • Introduction to the course, refresher on principles of evolution with emphasis on the evolution of sociality;
  • Formalising interactions: game theoretical approaches to cooperation and communication;
  • Bees do it, birds do it, too: Evolution of communicative systems;
  • Imitation and learning: how do birds learn to sing?;
  • Imitation: why are humans so good at copying?;
  • Social factors: how do other species use vocal communication in social contexts?;
  • From gestures to speech: how does communication evolve from gestures to speech?;
  • Communication in non-human primates: what’s different, what’s the same?;
  • Social cognition: what are the skills that distinguish us from our closest kin?;
  • The roots of human communication in infancy and evolution: the development of mind-reading;
  • The heart of sociality: what role do emotions and concerns such as empathy play in cooperation and communication?
  • How far is it possible to use the study of human development and comparisons with other species to understand the evolution of speech and language?


Teaching and learning methods

This course unit will include 11x 2 hour lectures, 11 x 1 hour seminars and 11 x 1 hour reading group sessions. E-learning provision: Lecture content, supplementary reading and resources, and a monitored discussion board will be provided via Blackboard. Feedback will be provided on the coursework essay before the exam.


Knowledge and understanding

Describe, using appropriate empirical evidence, scientific approaches to:

-          how language has evolved in humans

-          how nonlinguistic communication has evolved in humans and other species

-          the role of gesturing in communication

-          the flexibility of vocal signalling in nonhuman animals

-          the role of language for cognition and communication

-          the evolution of sociality

-          game theoretical approaches to social interactions

Identify and discuss:

-          the role of evolution and culture in communication and language

        -          the role of language and other forms of communication on the emergence of cooperation and sociality

Intellectual skills

-          Critically evaluate different, sometimes conflicting theories, on the evolution of language in humans

-          Critically evaluate whether language, or components in it, exist in other animals

-          Synthesise literature on the cognitive requirements for the acquiring language

-          Synthesise literature on how social living can evolve

-          Critically evaluate whether human sociality is unique

-          Reflect on the content of empirical research and extract key points

Practical skills

-          Use a range of sources (library, internet, electronic databases) to gather information

-          Plan how to construct a written argument based around appropriate empirical evidence

Transferable skills and personal qualities

-          Independently gather and select the most relevant information from a body of work through online and library              sources

-          Present concise and persuasive arguments

-          Produce a written summary of research for an educated audience

-          Develop critical thinking

Assessment methods

A 2 hour written exam worth 67% and a 2000 word coursework essay worth 33%.

Feedback methods

Students will be given verbal feedback each week during the discussion section of the course. They will also be given the opportunity to meet with Elena Lieven and Keith Jensen to discuss any issues that they have regarding the course. Students will be given written feedback on their coursework essay, which will be returned in time to use the feedback for the exam. Finally, a number of practice exam questions will be provided with guidance about how to answer them.


Recommended reading

Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 187-192.

Davies, N. B., Krebs, J. R., & West, S. A. (2012). An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology (4th ed.). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hauser, M. D. (1996). The Evolution of Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Herrmann, E., Call, J., Hernández-Lloreda, M. V., Hare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Humans have evolved specialized skills of social cognition: The cultural intelligence hypothesis. Science, 317, 1360-1366.

Jensen, K. (2012). Social regard: Evolving a psychology of cooperation. In J. Mitani, J. Call, P. Kappeler, R. Palombit & J. Silk (Eds.), The Evolution of Primate Societies. Chicago, USA: Chicago University Press.

Lieven, E. (in press). Language acquisition as a cultural process. In P.Richerson & M.Christiansen (eds.) Cultural Evolution. Ernst Strüngmann Forum (available on request)

Marler, P., & Slabbekoorn, H. (2004). Nature's Music: The Science of Birdsong. London, UK: Elsevier Academic Press.

Searcy, W. A., & Nowicki, S. (2005). The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 189

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Elena Lieven Unit coordinator

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