Primate social cognition as a precursor to language

Robert M. Seyfarth and Dorothy L. Cheney

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Primate social cognition as a precursor to language

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This article describes the primate social cognition as a precursor to language. The goal of phylogenetic reconstruction is to group similar animals together. One method of phylogenetic reconstruction is based on measures of distance, and arranges species into a phylogeny such that each is grouped with those with which it shares the greatest number of characters. Other methods rely on parsimony, generating the phylogeny that requires the fewest evolutionary changes in character states. Among primates, both methods yield a branching “tree structure” in which humans are grouped more closely with apes, less closely with Old World monkeys, and progressively less closely with New World monkeys, prosimians, and non-primate mammals. This phylogeny is consistent with both distance and parsimony such as morphological and genetic evidence to indicate both that there is less-evolutionary distance between humans and chimpanzees/bonobos than between humans and any other primate and also that a phylogeny that groups humans and chimpanzees/bonobos together is more parsimonious than a phylogeny that does not. Non-human primates use acoustically different vocalizations in different social contexts, suggesting that the mechanisms underlying call usage have a strong genetic component, although perhaps not as strong as the mechanisms underlying call production. The theory of mind spurred individuals not only to recognize other individuals' goals, intentions, and even knowledge as monkeys and apes already do but also to share their own goals, intentions, and knowledge with others. The evolution of a theory of mind thus spurred the evolution of words, grammar, and the vocal modifiability that these traits required.

Keywords: theory of mind; genetic evidence; primates; phylogenetic reconstruction; non-primate mammals

Article.  4846 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Cognitive Linguistics

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