Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Irvine

UC Irvine Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Irvine

Complex Signals: Reflexivity, Hierarchical Structure, and Modular Composition


This dissertation argues that what drives the emergence of complex communication systems is a process of modular composition, whereby independent communicative dispositions combine to create more complex dispositions. This challenges the dominant view in language-origins research, which attempts to resolve the explanatory gap between (simple) communication and (natural) language by demonstrating how complex syntax evolved. I show that these accounts fail to maintain sensitivity to empirical data: genuinely compositional syntax is extremely rare or non-existent in nature. In contrast, I propose that the reflexive properties of natural language—the ability to use language to talk about language—provide a plausible alternative explanatory target.

Part I provides the philosophical foundation of this novel account using the theoretical framework of Lewis-Skyrms signalling games and drawing upon relevant work in evolutionary biology, linguistics, cognitive systems, and machine learning. Part II provides a concrete set of models, along with analytic and simulation results, that show precisely how (and under what circumstances) this process of modular composition is supposed to work.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View