Death and the Evolution of Language

Human Studies 33 (4):425-444 (2010)
My hypothesis is that the cognitive challenge posed by death might have had a co-evolutionary role in the development of linguistic faculties. First, I claim that mirror neurons, which enable us to understand others’ actions and emotions, not only activate when we directly observe someone, but can also be triggered by language: words make us feel bodily sensations. Second, I argue that the death of another individual cannot be understood by virtue of the mirror neuron mechanism, since the dead provide no neural pattern for mirroring: this cognitive task requires symbolic thought, which in turn involves emotions. Third, I describe the symbolic leap of the human species as a cognitive detachment from the here and now, allowing displaced reference: through symbols the human mind can refer to what is absent, possible, or even impossible (like the presence of a dead person). Such a detachment has had a huge adaptive impact: adopting a coevolutionary standpoint can help explain why language is as effective as environmental inputs in order to stimulate our bodily experience. In the end I suggest a further coevolutionary reversal : if language is necessary to understand the death of the other, it might also be true that the peculiar cognitive problem posed by the death of the other (the corpse is present, but the other is absent) has contributed to the crucial transition from an indexical sign system to the symbolic level, i.e., the cognitive detachment . Death and language, as Heidegger claimed, have an essential relation for humans, both from an evolutionary and a phenomenological perspective: they have shaped the symbolic consciousness that make us conceive of them.
Keywords Death  Language evolution  Mirror neurons  Symbolic thought  Consciousness
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1007/s10746-011-9170-4
 Save to my reading list
Follow the author(s)
My bibliography
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Revision history Request removal from index
Download options
PhilPapers Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy on self-archival     Papers currently archived: 15,831
External links
Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library
References found in this work BETA

View all 10 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

No citations found.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles
Andy Clark (2006). Language, Embodiment, and the Cognitive Niche. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10 (8):370-374.
Roger Scruton (2012). Timely Death. Philosophical Papers 41 (3):421-434.

Monthly downloads

Added to index


Total downloads

16 ( #163,725 of 1,724,748 )

Recent downloads (6 months)

2 ( #268,625 of 1,724,748 )

How can I increase my downloads?

My notes
Sign in to use this feature

Start a new thread
There  are no threads in this forum
Nothing in this forum yet.