October 28, 2006
The Talking Ape
Christina Behme reviews The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved by Robbins Burling, in Metapsychology:
According to Robin Burling questions about the evolution of language are intriguing but difficult to answer because researchers cannot rely on any direct (fossil) evidence. He claims that any theorizing about language evolution has to depart from one of two anchor points: (i) the communication-behavior of our closest primate cousins (chimpanzees and baboons) as an approximation of the starting point and (ii) the languages spoken by modern humans as the endpoint. To bridge the gap between these two endpoints Burling proposes as the central argument of his book, "that language comprehension, rather than production, was the driving force for the human ability to use language" (p.4). His somewhat counterintuitive approach refocuses attention from the "obvious" part of language (speaking) to the occasionally neglected part (understanding) and offers a solution to one of the most vexing puzzles of language evolution: language seems necessary to use language, so how could it evolve in a pre-linguistic species? Burling suggests that the puzzle dissolves when we recognize that communication does not begin with a meaningful vocalization or gesture but with the interpretation of the behavior of another individual. An individual who can understand another's action even when no communication has been attempted gains an evolutionary significant advantage (p.20). And, because social animals naturally engage in countless instrumental acts, there is always a lot to interpret. Throughout his book Burling supplies a wealth of details about language, communication, and the human mind to support his argument.
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