The Language of Life: How Communication Drives Human Evolution

The Language of Life: How Communication Drives Human Evolution

by James Lull

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Communication in its most basic form—the sending of signals and exchange of messages within and between organisms—is the heart of evolution. From the earliest life-forms to Homo sapiens, the great chain of communication drives the evolutionary process and is the indispensable component of human culture.

That is the central message of this


Communication in its most basic form—the sending of signals and exchange of messages within and between organisms—is the heart of evolution. From the earliest life-forms to Homo sapiens, the great chain of communication drives the evolutionary process and is the indispensable component of human culture.

That is the central message of this unique perspective on both the biological evolution of life and the human development of culture. The book explores the totality of communication processes that create and sustain biological equilibrium and social stability. The authors argue that this ubiquitous connectivity is the elemental unity of life.

Introducing a new subdiscipline—evolutionary communication—the authors analyze the core domains of life—sheer survival, sex, culture, morality, religion, and technological change—as communications phenomena. What emerges from their analysis is a brilliant interpretation of life interconnected through communication from the basic molecular level to the most sophisticated manifestations of culture.

Challenging the boundaries of conventional approaches to cultural analysis, this is an original and engaging view of evolution and an encouraging prognosis for our collective future.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Drawing upon the findings of evolutionary psychology and communications theory, communications studies professors Lull (San Jose State) and Neiva (University of Alabama–Birmingham) argue that the ways humans communicate with one another are strategies for adapting and surviving and hold the key to the future success of the human species as biological and cultural creatures. Evolutionary communication, they argue, is a powerful theoretical perspective that applies to all forms of biological and social interaction. Summarizing the key concepts of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the authors explore the role that communication plays in the development of several key human phenomena, including sex, culture, morality, religion, and technological change. With sexual selection, for example, the authors say that artful seduction maximizes the potential to reproduce. The authors end on a high moral note, saying that altruism, for instance, is no longer instinctive but intentional, but it is still adaptive in an evolutionary sense. This illustrates the work’s flaw: while sometimes a lively book that serves as a helpful introduction to Darwin, it fails to combine smoothly the random processes that drive biological evolution with the human instincts that drive the goal-oriented activities of communication. Illus. (May)
From the Publisher
"Charles Darwin lives on in James Lull and Eduardo Neiva’s lively book. . . . Their clear, direct, and personable narratives explain how transmissions surrounding senders and receivers become signs and symbols as humans evolve through the ‘great chain of communication.’ . . . A fascinating, wide-ranging tour de force."
-Kevin G. Barnhurst, PhD, professor, Department of Communication, University of Illinois–Chicago

"In this profoundly original work, Lull and Neiva introduce a new way of seeing both communication and evolution. . . . Their innovative exploration of how communication contributes to the evolutionary progress of organisms and culture provides a rallying cry for all who build on the brilliant tradition of nineteenth-century evolutionists in realizing the power of the past and the promise of the future."
-Michael Real, professor, School of Communication and Culture, Royal Roads University, Victoria, British Columbia

"Lull and Neiva have written a book of grand theory, in the best sense of that term. The Language of Life ranges effortlessly across a wide and varied disciplinary terrain. The authors make bold conceptual leaps, and they chart new paths for future scholarship. They argue their case with impressive intellectual agility in lucid and elegant prose."
-Paul Messaris, Lev Kuleshov Professor of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania

"The authors combine vivid descriptions of contemporary phenomena . . . with time-tested evolutionary principles to fashion a most powerful argument. One of the most original, compelling, and entertaining books I’ve read in years."
-Toshie Takahashi, PhD, associate professor, School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University, Japan

"The Language of Life demonstrates . . . [a] vast knowledge of human culture from biology to philos-ophy. The authors unify these separate perspectives into a unique understanding of life—one that articulates the complex sequences of events in human evolution. This book is written with subtlety, sensibility, and intelligence. . . . This work is both powerful and valuable."
-Jean-Richard Bodon, PhD, professor and chair, Department of Mass Communication, Sam Houston State University

"Written in a clear, playful, and engaging style, The Language of Life presents ideas that have been virtually ignored in the humanities, social sciences, and biology. . . . A must read."
-Monica Rector, professor, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

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Prometheus Books
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How Communication Drives Human Evolution

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 James Lull and Eduardo Neiva
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-579-8

Chapter One


Vast chain of being! which from God began, Natures ethereal, human, angel, man, Beast, bird, fish, insect, which no eye can see, No glass can reach; from infinite to thee ...

Heaven's whole foundations to their centre nod And nature trembles to the throne of God. All this dread order break—for whom? for thee? Vile worm!—oh madness! pride! impiety! —Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1734)

In his celebrated work Essay on Man, the eighteenth-century British poet Alexander Pope expressed what had become the guiding philosophy of the day—unshakeable belief in a fully ordered and stable world ordained and supervised by God.

The evocative metaphor Pope uses repeatedly—the "Chain of Being"—derives from essentialist conceptions of nature and the universe. Everything fits into a strict hierarchy that descends from the highest possible metaphysical standing: en perfectissimum, God. Ranked below God are celestial beings (angels); then humans (sorted men over women, royalty over peasants, masters over slaves); then animals; then plants; then rocks, minerals, and soil. The Chain of Being is true and complete. In this world there is no mutation, no adaptation, no evolution. Whatever changes take place on the earth reflect only the actualization of a predestined order, the projection of an essence. The logic of the chain is self-evident, and, as Pope warns, only a mad, arrogant, and impious worm would dare to challenge the divine authority that rules over it.

Charles Darwin spent his life inspecting and reflecting on the Chain of Being. The astounding conclusions he would eventually draw, both scientific and philosophical, were not entirely original. Early biologists—especially Georges Buffon, Carl Linnaeus, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, all of whom influenced Darwin's thinking in one way or another—also invoked the idea of an orderly arrangement of scaled components in their systems of scientific classification. But as they worked, they began to modify the imagery. Instead of a descending chain, the biologists regarded the vast network of relationships that connects living organisms more as a "Tree of Life" that grows upward toward complexity and diversity, not downward toward simplicity and uniformity. God may be present, they thought, but much must also be explained about how the flora and fauna function and change right here on the ground.

Darwin likewise did not readily dismiss the idea of God. The chauvinistic Chain of Being idea even led him to consider at first that indigenous peoples must represent a species that is closer to animals than to white Europeans. Indeed, some of the tribal peoples Darwin encountered on his journey aboard the Beagle themselves struggled to mark clear differences between their own people and the animals around them. Slowly, Darwin rejected the idea of an unverifiable deity ruling autocratically from the top of a rigid hierarchy in nature. He expanded the biologists' alternative Tree of Life metaphor in his discussion of natural selection in On the Origin of Species and illustrated the new diversifying picture of life graphically.

As he developed the theory of natural selection, Darwin also came to believe that the Tree of Life represents not only direct interconnections among living things—existing roots, trunks, limbs, branches, twigs, and buds—but also the relation of contemporary life-forms to other forms in the past and future. Time, thus, became a primary consideration. He wrote that the Tree of Life "covers the [earth's] surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications" in the magnificent present. But it also "fills with its dead broken branches the crust of the earth" (the evolutionary past), while "buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch" (the evolving future). Darwin was imagining the radical idea of deep time.

Darwin's theory of natural selection would render any idea of fixed positions along the traditional Chain of Being obsolete. Biological entities would never again be understood as immovable links. Even rocks and minerals could rightly be considered dynamic parts of the chain because they reveal the nature of environments where life existed before and serve to sustain life now. The hierarchy represented in the Chain of Being had things exactly backward; life springs naturally from the bottom up, not the other way around. The idea of the prescientific Chain of Being seemed like an overly determined implement planted firmly in an undetermined world. The metaphor was wrong. A sturdy ladder or stairway to heaven would have been a more appropriate image.

Darwin and many of his fellow naturalists saw a new image of life emerging. Evolution does not proceed by divine intervention from the top, and it does not develop willy-nilly from the bottom. A much more complex and delicate set of factors and processes is at work. Nature is characterized by interconnectedness, movement, and change with no designer directing the action. Life can be sustained only by the production of interactions that work to the advantage of the organisms involved in the particular contexts they inhabit. In the process, the natural world is being made and remade constantly. But what underlies, facilitates, empowers, and regulates the incessant change?

We suggest an answer to that question in the following pages by giving the chain new meaning and relevance. Living things are linked to each other, yes, but the links don't materialize as solid entities. If life processes can be symbolized fruitfully as the links of a chain, then the chain should not be thought of as a series of domains that in any way freezes the elements into place or constrains their potential. The links can best be understood as flexible spheres of robust connectivity that flow within, between, and among biological agents, unifying all of nature in the process. Only one word accurately describes the ground on which such processes unfold: communication. Organisms survive and flourish in this world because they have the ability to communicate effectively.


As a parent explained to a psychologist at the University of Maryland when asked if she believes in evolution, "I don't know what to believe ... I just want my child to go to heaven." Her case is typical. Far less than half of the American public believes in evolution, and more than 90 percent believe in a personal god. More people believe in angels, extraterrestrial beings, the devil, heaven, and literal hell than in evolution.

The unwillingness to question the basis of religious belief functions like an analytical blind spot. Charles Darwin and many other nonbelievers of his era endured the same irrationality and resistance that evolutionists face today. The dustup over "intelligent design" is just the latest instance of the tiring "debate." Evolution is as certain as gravity, but many people can't accept the fact that humans, like all the other primates, descended from an apelike ancestor. It challenges the core of their identity, their sense of well-being, and their hopes for going to heaven—the key sticking point. In that respect, not much has changed since On the Origin of Species was published more than 150 years ago.

Religion provides a convenient escape from another conclusion that most humans find very uncomfortable: we come from lowly origins, just as Darwin said. Americans practice voluntary ignorance about this issue with special zeal. Only half of the American public believes that humans developed from other animal forms. That should come as no surprise. In the United States, God, not evolutionary processes, has been identified most often by citizens as the "Creator" of human beings in research that dates back decades. Evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to deny the truth of evolution. Americans are not the least enlightened in this regard. Among citizens of populations sampled in a survey conducted by the National Center for Science Education, Turkish people are even less likely to think humans developed from other life-forms. And Turkey is a secular state whose religious culture is moderate by Islamic standards.

Some antievolutionists believe that evolutionary theory means humans descended from apes that resemble the ones that roam the world today. Of course, that is not what Darwin claimed. Humans and today's great apes—bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans—all descended from a common ancestor. That's why we share so many structural similarities and so much DNA with our primate cousins. As Darwin describes it: "Man descended from some less highly organized form. The grounds upon which this conclusion rests will never be shaken for the close similarity between man and the lower animals in embryonic development, as well as in innumerable points of structure and constitution ... are facts which cannot be disputed." Humans branched off from the other apes more than five million years ago and began to assume a distinctive anatomy more than one hundred thousand years ago. To argue otherwise distorts the true story of our species.

Throughout the centuries Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clerics have rejected evolution as one way to distance humans from animals and nature. The Book of Genesis makes it clear to Jews and Christians that God created man in his image, not in relation to other life-forms. Islamic creationism is less specific but just as hierarchical. Like the proponents of the traditional Chain of Being confidently proclaimed, all three major religious belief systems continue to assert that humans exist above animals and sit close to God.

Mean-spiritedness often characterizes public attacks made on evolution and evolutionists. Never was this more evident than when the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, voted out school board members who had approved including intelligent design in a high school biology course in 2005. Popular religious broadcaster Pat Robertson subsequently warned on his nationally syndicated television program, "If there's a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him in your city ... if they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them." A district court judge later provided exacting legal justification for removing the creationist material from the classroom. Responding to a mountain of evidence presented by experts, the judge concluded that evolutionary theory "represents good science" while intelligent design amounts to nothing more than "a particular version of Christianity." The intelligent design crowd was dealt another blow a year later when the State of Kansas Board of Education voted in new members after the previous group required teachers to strongly criticize the validity of evolutionary theory in the classroom, paving the way for teaching creationism as science.

The popular appeal of religion and the expansion of modern media have given commentators like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, great opportunities to use God for ungodly purposes. From Father Charles Coughlin's radio broadcasts attacking Communists and Jews in the 1930s to Glenn Beck's incendiary messages on radio, television, and the Internet today, the electronic media have greatly intensified the influence of religious zealots. In the wake of the 2001 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, Osama bin Laden became a media celebrity with a global platform. Thanks to the Internet, American-born Yemeni imam Anwar al-Awlaki emerged as one of Islam's most recognizable and influential jihadists before he was killed in a drone attack.


A sleight of hand commonly employed by antievolutionists is to argue that evolution is "just a theory." This manipulation of language confuses imprecise popular meanings of theory with precise scientific understandings. In popular discourse, theory has strong negative connotations. Theory is nothing more than a point of view that cannot be properly verified or supported—often mere speculation or conjecture. In the State of Georgia, for instance, a sticker is placed on the cover of biology textbooks stating "Evolution is a theory, not a fact." Theories are considered particularly dangerous when they challenge widely accepted beliefs and practices.

For scientists, theory refers to something far more specific and respectable. An established scientific theory is a well-supported position on an issue that emerges gradually from the rigorous testing of conditions and relationships in the empirical world. Any thesis must meet the standard of falsifiability; you have to be able to test the theory. Propositions that are not supported by evidence or that cannot be tested empirically—like claims that biological adaptations in the natural world are caused by the hand of God, or that life began in the Garden of Eden six thousand years ago—do not count. Popular appeals don't count either. The top-selling "nonfiction" book Heaven Is for Real (2010) was based on the story of a boy's encounter with a blue-eyed Jesus and flock of adoring angels when the child underwent general anesthesia during an emergency appendectomy at age three. These whimsical assertions and many others like them fall victim to the fallacy of argumentum ad consequentiam—literally, "argument to the consequences": an outcome is true or false based on how much the proponent likes or dislikes the consequences.

Although the implications of genuine research and theorizing can be shocking—as the explanation of human evolution certainly has been for some people—scientific theories develop very conservatively. They will not be accepted by ethical scientists unless the method for collecting and analyzing the relevant data conforms to strict procedures and limitations. Conclusions must be carefully drawn according to the quality of evidence and cogency of reasoning used to explain the evidence.

Evolution is a theory in this scientific sense. All forms of creationism are not. Ironically, the popular interpretation of scientific theory as mere speculation applies to claims made by religionists, not evolutionists. And it's bad speculation at that. Arguing "You can't prove that God doesn't exist," for example, does not mean that he does. This is the ad ignorantium fallacy: a claim is believed to be true because it hasn't been disproved. The idea that the human body decays after death but that the soul flies up to heaven is scientific nonsense. A baby born with two faces does not mean God has produced a reincarnated Hindu goddess. The theory that dinosaurs existed in the distant past and that traces of their existence persist in life-forms today, however, is well supported by fossil and DNA evidence. The dinosaur theory passes the tests of scientific integrity with flying colors. Literally. The structural features and DNA of certain ancient dinosaurs are present today in the brightly colored birds that soar over our heads!

Evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne takes the argument about the legitimacy of evolutionary theory one step further: "Evolution is far more than a 'theory,'" he says. "Evolution is a fact." He points out that "a theory becomes a fact (or a 'truth') when so much evidence has been accumulated in its favor—and there is no evidence against it—that virtually all reasonable people will accept it." Such should be the case with evolution. One might "believe" in God, but there is no need to "believe" in evolution. Still, despite scientific advances that demonstrate its historical factuality and its theoretical truthfulness, evolutionary theory remains painfully problematic for most people around the world, even those who act sensibly most of the time.

Coyne explains, "We are apes descended from other apes, and our closest cousin is the chimpanzee, whose ancestors diverged from our own several million years ago in Africa. These are indisputable facts." But Coyne believes the fact that we have evolved from apes is not the main stumbling block to accepting the truth of evolution. Instead, he says, it is "the emotional consequences of facing that fact ... [T]o these folks, evolution raises such profound questions of purpose, morality, and meaning that they just can't accept it no matter how much evidence they see." Confronting the reality of evolution is no easy task for persons who have given their soul, or pretended to give their soul, to a supernatural being, and their time and money to the cultural institutions associated with it.


Excerpted from THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE by JAMES LULL EDUARDO NEIVA Copyright © 2012 by James Lull and Eduardo Neiva. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Lull is a distinguished authority on the impact of mass media, communications technology, and popular culture. The author of twelve books, he has appeared as a commentator on such media outlets as CNN, the BBC, and NPR; has written essays for the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others; and lectures worldwide. He is professor emeritus of communication studies at San Jose State University. Visit the author online at

Eduardo Neiva is a leading authority on how visual images influence culture. He is the author of two books in English on communication, culture, and images, and many books in Portuguese. He was a Fulbright research scholar at Indiana University in Bloomington and is professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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