One of the hallmarks of our species is that we develop sophisticated forms of communication. However, there is growing evidence that we exhibit important limitations when we are asked to perform tasks that require communicative sophistication. I will illustrate some of this evidence, which comes in part from research on the emergence of novel communication systems in the laboratory and in part from research on the use of natural language. Then I will focus on the question of how individuals who have limited communicative skills manage to develop sophisticated forms of communication.
I propose three non-mutually exclusive hypotheses to address the question. The first hypothesis is that communicative sophistication does not originate from sophisticated individuals but emerges in the public arena, as the result of a cultural ratchet effect. The second is that there may be great variability in communicative skills within the human population and that the development of sophisticated forms of communication may be driven by a minority of exceptional communicators. The third hypothesis turns the question on its head, suggesting that human communication may often be much less sophisticated than we think.
I will present various kinds of evidence supporting the second and the third hypotheses and argue that the latter can help us reduce the conceptual gap between the study of human communication and the study of other forms of coordination in humans and animals.