The Evolution of Language: an Integrative Approach

Leader: Marta Manser (EBES), Partners: Balthasar Bickel (IVS), Carel van Schaik (AIM), Hanjo Glock (Institute of Philosophy)

Summary and Scientific Questions

Ever since Müller (1864) proposed “no process of natural selection will ever distil significant words out of the notes of birds or the cries of beasts”, there has been unremitting controversy surrounding whether similarities exist between human language and animal calls. Even today, the concept that studying animal vocalizations can help us understand the origins of one of our most fascinating and potentially unique traits is rejected, based on the apparent lack of flexible and intentional use of animal vocalizations (Tomasello, 2008). One popular competing hypothesis instead postulates that the closest animal analogue to language is gestural communication (Corbalis, 2002), which is therefore a better candidate for deciphering language evolution. Human children, for example, begin to use gestures referentially and symbolically long before they utter their first meaningful words (Tomasello, 2003). Furthermore, greatape gestures, like human language, are not genetically fixed, but can be learned and intentionally produced (Tomasello, 2008).

This biased view with regards to the irrelevance of the vocal medium may merely reflect insufficient research effort into the complexities and variation that underlie animal vocal communication. Moreover, vocal language did evolve, and one can argue that studying animal vocalizations from a comparative perspective should indeed shed light on the selective conditions giving rise to language. With this project we aim to employ synergistic theoretical and empirical techniques to unpack the features thought to be unique to human language and ultimately better understand the evolutionary preconditions that promote the emergence of complex vocal communication systems.