What Primate Calls Can Tell Us about Human Evolution

  • Philip Lieberman


An influential, traditional school of linguistics and philosophy that is often identified with Noam Chomsky and his followers, but which is by no means limited to “generative” or “transformational” linguistics, categorically differentiates the neural bases of human language from the vocal communications of other primates (e.g., Bickerton, 1990; Wilkins and Wakefeld, in press). There supposedly is no direct evolutionary link between the brain mechanisms that regulate vocal communication in monkeys and apes and the brain mechanisms that regulate human speech and syntax. Adherents of this position note that whereas the neural substrate regulating human speech allows arbitrary sequences of speech sounds to be produced on a “voluntary” basis, non-human primate’s vocalizations are largely “bound” to particular emotional states. Hewes (1973), for example, proposes that the first form of human language involved manual signing rather than vocal signals. Pinker and Bloom (1990) claim that the neural mechanisms that make human syntax possible evolved from some part of the non-human primate brain that had no function. An extreme position is found in Chomskÿ s (1972, 1976, 1980) repeated claims that human language could not have evolved by means of Darwinian processes.


Basal Ganglion Progressive Supranuclear Palsy Speech Production Progressive Supranuclear Palsy Human Speech 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip Lieberman
    • 1
  1. 1.Cognitive and Linguistic SciencesBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA

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