Reconsidering the Role of Manual Imitation in Language Evolution

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Unlike language proper we do not suppose that such systems require syntactic structure.

  2. 2.

    Whiten (2011; Whiten and Ham 1992) has consistently argued that chimpanzees do imitate. However, he adopts a weaker notion of imitation than we do here, according to which imitation is a process “in which B learns some aspect(s) of the form of an act from A” (Whiten and Ham 1992, p. 250). See Fridland and Moore (2014) for discussion of why this definition is unhelpful for language evolution research.

  3. 3.

    In these cases human-like forms of vocal control are not presupposed, since only the pitch, tone and speed of call parts are matched. See Moore (2013b) for discussion.

  4. 4.

    In fact these views are not inconsistent. Apes typically gesture either by showing one another parts of their bodies, or by producing gestures that resemble action sequences. Given that apes’ bodies are biologically inherited, and that their action sequences correspond to bodily movements, even ritualised gestures correspond to species-wide biological features.

  5. 5.

    While the gesture itself is not learned, children’s ability to incorporate points into their communicative repertoire—by supplementing them with gaze alternation between their addressee and an intended referent—improves with training (Matthews et al. 2012).

  6. 6.

    These are not the oldest tools in the hominin record. The recently discovered Lomekwian toolset dates from around 3.3 mya—predating the Oldowan toolset by 700,000 years (Harmand et al. 2015).

  7. 7.

    Although chimpanzees may possess some very simple forms of vocal imitation, their vocal abilities are clearly very different from those of competent vocal learner species (such as human beings and songbirds). Their abilities seem to have been enabled by a mutation in the FOXP2 gene that is not present in apes (see footnote 3).

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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.

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Tramacere, A., Moore, R. Reconsidering the Role of Manual Imitation in Language Evolution. Topoi 37, 319–328 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-016-9440-x

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Keywords

  • Language evolution
  • Imitation
  • Mirror neuron system
  • Social learning
  • Primate communication