More than words: the emergence and evolution of symbolic communication

The study of symbolic communication is a key research area in both the social and natural sciences. However, little has been done in order to bridge these scientific domains, so an unfortunate gulf between them still persists. Even less has been done in the field of computational sociology, in which most research using agent-based models has disregarded the importance of symbolic communication, albeit only this phenomenon can be called social in its own right. It is this lacuna that my Ph.D. thesis addressed. In the thesis, I have claimed that the type of emergent properties that are inherent to social phenomena are likely to result from the unique fact that the participating entities are symbolic agents. It is proposed that symbolic communication is a threshold phenomenon that emerges in the intersection among human cognition, social interactions and human biology. I developed a theoretical framework with which to clarify this connection, and, in order to test in silico some hypotheses derived from this theoretical framework, I carried out some experiments and analysis that relied upon two different agent-based models. The first agent-based model was developed to study the properties of an emergent communication system, in which groups of `speechless' agents create local lexicons and compete with each other to spread them throughout the whole population. The second agent-based model was built to study the pre-linguistic stage of cooperation among individuals required for the emergence of symbolic communication. In this talk, I will present the main results of this Ph.D. research. At the end of the session, I hope to show that by linking computational sociology to appropriate theories of language evolution, communication, evolutionary biology and cognitive research, the thesis provides conceptually-grounded mechanisms to explain the emergence and evolution of symbolic communication.

Monday, 16 January, 2012 - 12:30 to 14:00
Mauricio Salgado