Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Gestures and language: Chimps, bonobos, people

Or, why it's so hard to figure out the evolution of language.

Both NPR and the NYT's Science Times this morning have stories about a piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Pollick & de Waal on gestures among chimpanzees and bonobos: They're used in ways that differ from animals lower in the evolutionary pecking order (monkeys) but are versatile and look to these researchers like they make "gesture a serious candidate modality to have acquired symbolic meaning" among early humans (drawing here from the Science Times piece). Or, from NPR:
The point: gestures are flexible — apes use them to communicate different things in different situations.
So, the claim seems to be that we developed some kind of sign system (language?) then transferred it to speech when that our vocal apparatus reached the relevant point.

Let's grant that I can't provide compelling evidence that this is wrong, but is there any serious reason to think this actually happened? It's not a story about language per se. They quote Marc Hauser on this: "We are not licensed to make any connections with language". (He also notes that we don't usually use gesture for language but to enhance it, sign languages aside, obviously.) The NYT article (by Nicolas Wade) even seems to connect the gestural patterns not to innovations driven by the brain-power of the higher species (monkeys aren't smart enough to do this), but to direct historical inheritance: we all learned this way back when we weren't really different.

A basic piece of good journalism is surely to provide context. Neither story acknowledges that theories of the gestural origins of speech go back at least into the mid 18th c., over 100 years before the famous ban of discussions on origins of language by the Société de Linguistique in Paris. If you heard and read these stories, you might think that the present work is wildly innovative, but it simply contributes to a very old line of research, one revived in recent years by various people. And you might think that the people cited in favor of it were reacting to a novel idea rather than endorsing a view they're on record about already.

But the whole thing is still insanely speculative, any way you slice it.

Update, Wed. 10:00 am: Well, after my half-heartened commentary on this topic, I now read the really insightful comments of Heidi Harley on Language Log, here, and crossposted to HeiDeas.

Image from here. Don't ask me; it was just the first 'chimp (?) waving the finger' image I saw.


Joe said...

'Waving the finger'? I don't see any waving going on. Giving the finger, giving a one-finger salute, shooting the bird, gigging (from my youth -- I assume it's the similarity to the shape of a frog-gig), making an obscene gesture.

The Paris guys were wrong to ban the topic, but it's really a shame to keep publishing stuff when papers don't represent much progress.

Anonymous said...

It seemed at one point eveyone was on that bandwagen (primate language capabilities). Golden Girl Betty White will disagree on behalf of Coco...

Mr. Verb said...

Beautiful ... why didn't I think to search for Betty White and Coco photos?

hh said...

aw, you're too nice! I agree with you -- not clear to me that this represents progress on the question of lg. evolution a-tall -- or even what WOULD (maybe DNA evidence?) -- but am too much of a wuss to say it in the LL forum. but it is fun to think about gestures and what they're doing communicatively. :) hh

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, I'm not nice ... yours was just a really insightful post, way beyond how I was thinking.