How do communication systems emerge?

Thomas C. Scott-Phillips*, Richard A. Blythe, Andy Gardner, Stuart A. West

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Citations (Scopus)


Communication involves a pair of behaviours-a signal and a response-that are functionally interdependent. Consequently, the emergence of communication involves a chicken-and-egg problem: if signals and responses are dependent on one another, then how does such a relationship emerge in the first place? The empirical literature suggests two solutions to this problem: ritualization and sensory manipulation; and instances of ritualization appear to be more common. However, it is not clear from a theoretical perspective why this should be the case, nor if there are any other routes to communication. Here, we develop an analytical model to examine how communication can emerge. We show that: (i) a state of non-interaction is evolutionarily stable, and so communication will not necessarily emerge even when it is in both parties' interest; (ii) the conditions for sensory manipulation are more stringent than for ritualization, and hence ritualization is likely to be more common; and (iii) communication can arise by a third route, when the intention to communicate can itself be communicated, but this may be limited to humans. More generally, our results demonstrate the utility of a functional approach to communication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1943-1949
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1735
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2012


  • communication
  • signals
  • evolution
  • emergence
  • communicative intention


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