Advertisement

Topoi

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 319–328 | Cite as

Reconsidering the Role of Manual Imitation in Language Evolution

  • Antonella TramacereEmail author
  • Richard Moore
Article

Abstract

In this paper, we distinguish between a number of different phenomena that have been called imitation, and identify one form—a high fidelity mechanism for social learning—considered to be crucial for the development of language. Subsequently, we consider a common claim in the language evolution literature, which is that prior to the emergence of vocal language our ancestors communicated using a sophisticated gestural protolanguage (the ‘gesture-first view’), the learning of some parts of which required manual imitation. Drawing upon evidence from recent work in neuroscience, primatology, and archeology, we argue that while gestural communication undoubtedly played a crucial role in language evolution, the grounds for thinking that manual imitation did are currently unconvincing.

Keywords

Language evolution Imitation Mirror neuron system Social learning Primate communication 

Notes

Acknowledgements

For helpful discussions of this manuscript, the authors would like to thank Claudio Tennie, an audience at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, and three anonymous reviewers.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare they have no conflicts of interest.

References

  1. Arbib M (2005) From monkey-like action recognition to human language: an evolutionary framework for neurolinguistics. Behav Brain Sci 28(02):105–124Google Scholar
  2. Arbib M (2012) How the brain got language: the mirror system hypothesis. OUP, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arbib MA, Liebal K, Pika S (2008) Primate vocalization, gesture, and the evolution of human language. Curr Anthr 49(6):1053–1076CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bard KA (2007) Neonatal imitation in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) tested with two paradigms. Anim Cogn 10(2):233–242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bohn M, Call J, Tomasello M (2016) Comprehension of iconic gestures by chimpanzees and human children. J Exp Child Psychol 142:1–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bonini L, Ferrari PF (2011) Evolution of mirror systems: a simple mechanism for complex cognitive functions. An NY Acad Sci 1225(1):166–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bottjer SW, Johnson F (1997) Circuits, hormones, and learning: vocal behavior in songbirds. J Neurobiol 33(5):602–618CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bråten S (2006) Intersubjective communication and emotion in early ontogeny. Cambridge UP, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  9. Buccino G, Binkofski F, Fink GR, Fadiga L, Fogassi L, Gallese V, Seitz RJ, Zilles K, Rizzolatti G, Freund HJ (2001) Action observation activates premotor and parietal areas in a somatotopic manner: an fMRI study. Euro J Neurosci 13(2):400–404Google Scholar
  10. Charman T, Baron-Cohen S, Swettenham J, Baird G, Cox A, Drew A (2000) Testing joint attention, imitation, and play as infancy precursors to language and theory of mind. Cognit Dev 15(4):481–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Conway CM, Christiansen MH (2001) Sequential learning in non-human primates. Trends Cogn Sci 5(12):539–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Coudé G, Ferrari PF, Rodà F, Maranesi M, Borelli E, Veroni V, Fogassi L (2011) Neurons controlling voluntary vocalization in the macaque ventral premotor cortex. PLoS ONE 6(11):e26822CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Crockford C, Herbinger I, Vigilant L, Boesch C (2004) Wild chimpanzees have group specific calls: A case for vocal learning? Ethology 110:221–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Crockford C, Wittig RM, Mundry R, Zuberbuehler K (2012) Wild chimpanzees inform ignorant group members of danger. Curr Biol 22:142–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Donald M (1991) Origins of the modern mind: three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Harvard UP, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  16. Douglas PH, Moscovice LR (2015) Pointing and pantomime in wild apes? Female bonobos use referential and iconic gestures to request genito-genital rubbing. Sci Rep 5:13999CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Enard W, Przeworski M, Fisher SE, Lai CS, Wiebe V, Kitano T, Monaco AP, Pääbo S (2002) Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language. Nature 418(6900):869–872CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fedurek P, Machanda Z, Schel AM, Slocombe K (2013) Pant hoot chorusing and social bonds in male chimpanzees. Anim Behav 86:189–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ferrari PF, Gallese V, Rizzolatti G, Fogassi L (2003) Mirror neurons responding to the observation of ingestive and communicative mouth actions in the monkey ventral premotor cortex. Eur J Neurosci 17(8):1703–1714CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ferrari PF, Visalberghi E, Paukner A, Fogassi L, Ruggiero A, Suomi SJ (2006) Neonatal imitation in rhesus macaques. PLoS Biol 4(9):e302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ferrari PF, Vanderwert RE, Paukner A, Bower S, Suomi SJ, Fox NA (2012) Distinct EEG amplitude suppression to facial gestures as evidence for a mirror mechanism in newborn monkeys. J Cogn Neurosci 24(5):1165–1172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fridland E, Moore R (2014) Imitation reconsidered. Philos Psychol 28(6):856–880CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Galef BG (2013) Imitation and local enhancement: detrimental effects of consensus definitions on analyses of social learning in animals. Behav Process 100:123–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gentilucci M, Corballis MC (2006) From manual gesture to speech: a gradual transition. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 30:949–960CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Genty E, Zuberbühler K (2014) Spatial reference in a bonobo gesture. Curr Biol 24(14):1601–1605CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Halina M, Rossano F, Tomasello M (2013) The ontogenetic ritualization of bonobo gestures. Anim Cogn 16(4):653–666CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hara E, Rivas MV, Ward JM, Okanoya K, Jarvis ED (2012) Convergent differential regulation of parvalbumin in the brains of vocal learners. PLoS ONE 7(1):e29457CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Harmand S, Lewis JE, Feibel CS, Lepre CJ, Prat S, Lenoble A, Taylor N (2015) 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 521(7552):310–315CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hauser MD, Yang C, Berwick RC, Tattersall I, Ryan MJ, Watumull J, Chomsky N, Lewontin RC (2014) The mystery of language evolution. Front Psychol 5:401Google Scholar
  30. Hecht EE, Gutman DA, Preuss TM, Sanchez MM, Parr LA, Rilling JK (2012) Process versus product in social learning: comparative diffusion tensor imaging of neural systems for action execution–observation matching in macaques, chimpanzees, and humans. Cereb Cortex 1014–1024Google Scholar
  31. Hecht EE, Murphy LE, Gutman DA, Votaw JR, Schuster DM, Preuss TM, Parr LA (2013) Differences in neural activation for object-directed grasping in chimpanzees and humans. J Neurosci 33(35):14117–14134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2011) The gestural repertoire of the wild chimpanzee. Anim Cogn 14:745–767CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2014) The meanings of chimpanzee gestures. Curr Biol 24(14):1596–1600CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hobaiter C, Leavens DA, Byrne RW (2014) Deictic gesturing in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)? Some possible cases. J Comp Psychol 128(1):82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Irvine E (2016) Method and evidence: gesture and iconicity in the evolution of language. Mind Lang 31(2):221–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Johnson MH, Dziurawiec S, Ellis H, Morton J (1991) Newborns' preferential tracking of face-like stimuli and its subsequent decline. Cognition 40(1):1–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Keysers C, Perrett DI (2004) Demystifying social cognition: a Hebbian perspective. Trends Cogn Sci 8(11):501–507CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Krause J, Lalueza-Fox C, Orlando L, Enard W, Green RE, Burbano HA, Bertranpetit J (2007) The derived FOXP2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neandertals. Curr Biol 17(21):1908–1912CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kuhl PK, Meltzoff AN (1982) The bimodal perception of speech in infancy. Am Assoc Adv Sci 218Google Scholar
  40. Leavens DA, Russell J, Hopkins WD (2005) Intentionality as measured in the persistence and elaboration of communication by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Child Dev 76(1):291–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lewis D (1969) Convention: a philosophical study. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  42. Maestripieri D (2005) Gestural communication in three species of macaques (Macaca mulatta, M. nemestrina, M. arctoides): use of signals in relation to dominance and social context. Gesture 5(1–2):57–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Matthews D, Behne T, Lieven E, Tomasello M (2012) Origins of the human pointing gesture: a training study. Dev Sci 15(6):817–829CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Meltzoff AN, Moore MK (1983) Newborn infants imitate adult facial gestures. Child Dev 702–709Google Scholar
  45. Mooney R (2014) Auditory—vocal mirroring in songbirds. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 369(1644):20130179CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Moore R (2013a) Imitation and conventional communication. Biol Philos 28(3):481–500CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Moore R (2013b) Social learning and teaching in chimpanzees. Biol Philos 28(6):879–901CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Moore R (2014) Ape gestures: interpreting chimpanzee and bonobo minds. Curr Biol 24(14):R645–R647CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Moore R (2016) Meaning and ostension in great ape gestural communication. Anim Cogn 19(1):223–231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moore R (In press) Pedagogy and social learning in human development. In: Kiverstein (ed) The Routledge handbook of the social mind. London, RoutledgeGoogle Scholar
  51. Moore R, Mueller B, Kaminski J, Tomasello M (2015a) Two-year-olds but not domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) understand communicative intentions without language, gestures, or gaze. Dev Sci 18(2):232–242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Moore R, Call J, Tomasello M (2015b) Production and comprehension of gestures between orang-utans (Pongo pygmaeus) in a referential communication game. PLoS ONE 10(6):e0129726CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Nagy E, Peter M (2004) Homo imitans or homo provocans? Human imprinting model of neonatal imitation. Infant Behav Dev 27(1):54–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Nelissen K, Borra E, Gerbella M, Rozzi S, Luppino G, Vanduffel W, Orban GA (2011) Action observation circuits in the macaque monkey cortex. J Neurosci 31(10):3743–3756CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Nielsen M (2012) Imitation, pretend play and childhood: Essential elements in the evolution of human culture? J Comp Psychol 126:170–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Oostenbroek J, Suddendorf T, Nielsen M, Redshaw J, Kennedy-Costantini S, Davis J, Clark S, Slaughter V (2016) Comprehensive longitudinal study challenges the existence of neonatal imitation in humans. Curr Biol 26(10):1334–1338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Pezzulo G, Baldassarre G, Butz MV, Castelfranchi C, Hoffmann J (2007) From actions to goals and vice versa: theoretical analysis and models of the ideomotor principle and tote. In: Butz M, Sigaud O, Pezzulo G, Baldassarre G (eds) Anticipatory behavior in adaptive learning systems: advances in anticipatory processing, LNAI 4520. Springer, NewYorkGoogle Scholar
  58. Pfenning AR, Hara E, Whitney O, Rivas MV, Wang R, Roulhac PL, Mountcastle J (2014) Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. Science 346(6215):1256846CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Ploog D (2002) Is the neural basis of vocalisation different in non-human primates and homo sapiens? Brit Acad 106:121–135Google Scholar
  60. Richerson P, Boyd R (2005) Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. Chicago UP, Chicago, ILGoogle Scholar
  61. Rizzolatti G (2005) The mirror neuron system and its function in humans. Anat Embryol 210(5–6):419–421CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Rizzolatti G, Fabbri-Destro M (2010) Mirror neurons: from discovery to autism. Exp Brain Res 200(3–4):223–237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Rizzolatti G, Sinigaglia C (2010) The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nat Rev Neurosci 11(4):264–274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Roberts AI, Vick SJ, Buchanan-Smith HM (2012) Usage and comprehension of manual gestures in wild chimpanzees. Anim Behav 84(2):459–470CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Roberts AI, Vick SJ, Buchanan-Smith HM (2013) Communicative intentions in wild chimpanzees: persistence and elaboration in gestural signalling. Anim Cogn 16(2):187–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Roberts AI, Vick SJ, Roberts SGB, Menzel CR (2014) Chimpanzees modify intentional gestures to coordinate a search for hidden food. Nat Commun 5(3088)Google Scholar
  67. Rochat MJ, Caruana F, Jezzini A, Intskirveli I, Grammont F, Gallese V, Umiltà MA (2010) Responses of mirror neurons in area F5 to hand and tool grasping observation. Exp Brain Res 204(4):605–616CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Schel AM, Townsend SW, Machanda Z, Zuberbühler K, Slocombe KE (2013) Chimpanzee alarm call production meets key criteria for intentionality. PLoS ONE 8(10):e76674CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Schick K, Toth N (1993) Making silent stones speak: human evolution and the dawn of technology. Simon and Schuster, New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  70. Simpson EA, Murray L, Paukner A, Ferrari PF (2014) The mirror neuron system as revealed through neonatal imitation: presence from birth, predictive power and evidence of plasticity. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 369(1644):20130289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Slocombe KE, Zuberbühler K (2007) Chimpanzees modify recruitment screams as a function of audience composition. PNAS 104(43):17228–17233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Slocombe K, Kaller T, Turman L, Townsend S, Papworth S, Zuberbuehler K (2010) Production of food-associated calls in wild male chimpanzees is dependent on the composition of the audience. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 64(12):1959–1966CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2006) Push or pull: emulation versus imitation in great apes and human children. Ethology 112:1159–1169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2009) Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364(1528):2405–2415CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2012) Untrained chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) fail to imitate novel actions. PLoS ONE 7:e41548CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Tomasello M (1994) The question of chimpanzee culture. In: Wrangham R, McGrew W, de Waal F, Heltne P (eds) Chimpanzee cultures. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 301–317Google Scholar
  77. Tomasello M (1999) The cultural origins of human cognition. Harvard UP, LondonGoogle Scholar
  78. Tomasello M (2008) Origins of human communication. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  79. Tramacere A, Ferrari PF (2016) Faces in the mirror, from the neuroscience of mimicry to the emergence of mentalizing. J Anthropol Sci 94:1–14Google Scholar
  80. Tramacere A, Ferrari PF, Iriki A, (2015) Epigenetic regulation of mirror neurons development and related evolutionary hypothesis. In: Ferrari PF, Rizzolatti G (eds) New Frontiers in Mirror Neurons Research OUP, USAGoogle Scholar
  81. Tramacere A, Pievani T, Ferrari PF (in press) Mirror neurons in the tree of life, mosaic evolution, plasticity and exaptation of sensorimotor matching responses. Biol RevGoogle Scholar
  82. Vanderwert RE, Simpson EA, Paukner A, Suomi SJ, Fox NA, Ferrari PF (2015) Early social experience affects neural activity to affiliative facial gestures in newborn nonhuman primates. Dev Neurosci 37(3):243–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Vargha-Khadem F, Watkins K, Alcock K, Fletcher P, Passingham R (1995) Praxic and nonverbal cognitive deficits in a large family with a genetically transmitted speech and language disorder. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 92:930–933CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Veà J, Sabater-Pi J (1998) Spontaneous pointing behaviour in the wild pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus). Folia Primatol 69(5):289–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Watson SK, Townsend SW, Schel AM, Wilke C, Wallace EK, Cheng L, West V, Slocombe KE (2015) Vocal learning in the functionally referential food grunts of chimpanzees. Curr Biol 25(4):495–499CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Whiten A (2011) The scope of culture in chimpanzees, humans and ancestral apes. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 366(1567):997–1007CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Whiten A, Ham R (1992) On the nature and evolution of imitation in the animal kingdom: reappraisal of a century of research. Adv Stud Behav 21:239–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lichtenberg-KollegGeorg-August-University GöttingenDeutsche Primaten ZentrumGermany
  2. 2.Berlin School of Mind and BrainHumboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

Personalised recommendations