Primate social knowledge and the origins of language

Mind and Society 7 (1):129-142 (2008)
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Primate vocal communication is very different from human language. Differences are most pronounced in call production. Differences in production have been overemphasized, however, and distracted attention from the information that primates acquire when they hear vocalizations. In perception and cognition, continuities with language are more apparent. We suggest that natural selection has favored nonhuman primates who, upon hearing vocalizations, form mental representations of other individuals, their relationships, and their motives. This social knowledge constitutes a discrete, combinatorial system that shares several features with language. It is probably a general primate characteristic whose appearance pre-dates the evolution of spoken language in our hominid ancestors. The prior evolution of social cognition created individuals who were preadapted to develop language. Several features thought to be unique to language—like discrete combinatorics and the encoding of propositional information—were not introduced by language. They arose, instead, because understanding social life and predicting others’ behavior requires a particular style of thinking



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