Primate Language and the Playback Experiment, in 1890 and 1980

Journal of the History of Biology 38 (3):461-493 (2005)
The playback experiment -- the playing back of recorded animal sounds to the animals in order to observe their responses -- has twice become central to celebrated researches on non-human primates. First, in the years around 1890, Richard Garner, an amateur scientist and evolutionary enthusiast, used the new wax cylinder phonograph to record and reproduce monkey utterances with the aim of translating them. Second, in the years around 1980, the ethologists Peter Marler, Robert Seyfarth, and Dorothy Cheney used tape recorders in a broadly similar way to test whether the different predator calls of one monkey species, vervet monkeys, warn about different kinds of predator. This paper explores the circumstances leading to the ca. 1890 invention and the ca. 1980 reinvention of the primate playback experiment. In both instances, I show, the experiment served as a riposte to those arguing, on scientific grounds, that an unbridgeable gap divides human language from animal communication. I also consider how far progress in technology explains the timing of invention and reinvention. I conclude with some reflections on sifting contingent from inevitable aspects of the history of the primate playback experiment, and of scientific achievements more generally
Keywords animal communication  ethology  evolution of language  Garner, Richard  historical contingency  Marler, Peter  philology  psychology  playback experiments  technological determinism
Categories (categorize this paper)
 Save to my reading list
Follow the author(s)
My bibliography
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Revision history Request removal from index
Download options
PhilPapers Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy on self-archival     Papers currently archived: 24,470
External links
Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library
References found in this work BETA

View all 21 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA
Marion Thomas (2006). Yerkes, Hamilton and the Experimental Study of the Ape Mind: From Evolutionary Psychiatry to Eugenic Politics. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 37 (2):273-294.

View all 8 citations / Add more citations

Similar books and articles
Kristin Andrews (2008). Interpreting the Baboon. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12 (1):5-6.
Emmanuel Gilissen (2004). Aspects of Human Language: Where Motherese? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27 (4):514-514.
Amanda Seed & Michael Tomasello (2010). Primate Cognition. Topics in Cognitive Science 2 (3):407-419.
W. J. (1996). The Evidential Significance of Thought Experiment in Science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 27 (2):233-250.
David Atkinson (2003). Experiments and Thought Experiments in Natural Science. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 232:209-226.

Monthly downloads

Added to index


Total downloads

12 ( #355,523 of 1,925,574 )

Recent downloads (6 months)

3 ( #254,998 of 1,925,574 )

How can I increase my downloads?

My notes
Sign in to use this feature

Start a new thread
There  are no threads in this forum
Nothing in this forum yet.