BSc Psychology / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Sociality & Communication: Evolutionary Perspectives

Course unit fact file
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. 



This 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?




Teaching and learning methods

This unit will be delivered via lectures and seminars.

Knowledge and understanding

Describe, using appropriate empirical evidence, scientific approaches to; How language has evolved in humans, how non-linguistic 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 coursework assignment worth 35%, a exam worth 60% and engagement activities worth 5%.

Feedback methods

Students will be given written feedback on their coursework essay, which will be returned in time to use the feedback for the exam.

Exam feedback will be provided after exam board.

Engagement activities - Cohort level feedback provided in synchronous sessions and group level feedback posted on Blackboard


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.

Independent study hours Independent study 171

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Alissa Ferry Unit coordinator

Return to course details