The Evolution of Social Communication in Primates

Volume 1 of the series Interdisciplinary Evolution Research pp 289-311


The Emergence of Modern Communication in Primates: A Computational Approach

  • Antonio Benítez-BurracoAffiliated withDepartment of Spanish Philology and Teaching, University of Huelva Email author 
  • , Ana MineiroAffiliated withInstitute of Health Sciences, Portuguese Catholic University
  • , Alexandre Castro-CaldasAffiliated withInstitute of Health Sciences, Portuguese Catholic University

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It is biological structures (and their activities), and not the diverse functions they contribute to (i.e., forms of behavior), that evolve. We believe that the long-lasting controversy around when modern language appeared would benefit from a shift of focus, from “communication” to “computation.” Computation is the activity performed by specific neural devices. Computational devices (and their neurobiological correlates), but not communication devices, have a common evolutionary history. We further expect that computational devices are functionally coupled to different interface systems, thus rendering diverse kinds of outputs and eventually contributing to different functions (forms of behaviors). Multiple evidence (genetic, neurobiological, clinical, archeological, fossil, and ethological) suggest that the computational device of human language (the faculty of language in the narrow sense, after Chomsky) is an evolutionary novelty that appeared along with anatomically modern humans. Importantly, this does not preclude that other extinct hominins had “language.” It is just that the strings of symbols they were plausibly able to produce lacked certain structural properties that we can only find in extant oral or sign languages. Hominin oral “languages” (or better perhaps, “protolanguages”) could have replaced signed “languages” at some early period during hominin evolution. Nonetheless, the gestural “languages” (or better, “protolanguages”) hypothetically employed by other extinct hominids would have been less structurally complex than extant human languages are.


Computation Hominin Language evolution Language modalities Syntax