Primate Communication

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Tiger and Clouded Leopard Keeper Talk. Orangutan Feeding Habitat 2. Reptile Feeding. Donate Tickets Membership. The evolution of language is typically debated within a hypothetical framework, but we can look to extant non-human primate communication to help shape the discussion. One of the most interesting and least studied forms of social communication in apes is gesture. All four species of great ape that include bonobo, chimpanzee, orangutan, use their hands to communicate, but gestures are difficult to study in the wild. A notable exception is one of the first reports on gestures in wild chimpanzees studied by Goodall.

The most detailed studies of gesture historically concerned human-reared individuals trained to use American Sign Language. This article reviews gestures studied in two species of great ape, chimpanzees and bonobos.

1. Introduction

The gestural origin of language theory offers a tantalizing scenario for what human language may have looked like in its early stages, and this article reviews the data on ape gestures that support this theory, or rather, a suggested modified version. Keywords: gesture , primate communication , evolution of language , social communication , American sign language.


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Frans B. He is C. He is the author of numerous books, including The age of empathy Random House, Amy S. Pollick works at the Smithsonian Institution. She received her PhD in neuroscience and animal behaviour from Emory University, where she conducted research on a variety of communicative behaviours in non-human primates. Access to the complete content on Oxford Handbooks Online requires a subscription or purchase.

Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription. The sounds which the vervets produce as a means of communication are instinctive and not learned. Sign Language. Sign language has been chosen as the superior medium in which to conduct language instruction for primates because they are unable to vocalize language.

Like Humans, Chimps Learn Behavior From One Another

Some researchers hold the belief that primates are simply not intelligent enough to speak. This theory has lost credence as further research with apes has demonstrated their tremendous intellectual capacities in other arenas. A final theory suggests that the vocal cords of primates are not capable of supporting the production of language. Washoe is a chimpanzee who was taught to sign by her caretakers, Allen and Beatrice Gardner. She was raised in a friendly environment in which she learned sign language both through imitation and instrumental learning.

Her language acquisition was notable in several respects.

The Evolution of Primate Communication and Metacommunication

Washoe was able to transfer signs to a new referent without specific instruction. For example, she learned the word "more" in relation to tickling but was spontaneously able to apply the term to another referent. Additionally significant was Washoe's use of signs in combinations after learning only about 8 or 10 signs. This spontaneous combination of signs seems similar to the ability of human children to connect words in sentences to which they have never specifically been exposed.

Washoe has demonstrated reliable use of signs. A sign is deemed reliable when its use has been recorded by three separate observers on 15 consecutive days. Her trainers have observed that Washoe mostly uses her signs to discipline her children and explain her concern about them. Washoe adopted an infant chimp named Loulis. No human sign language was used in Loulis' presence during the first 5 years of her life.

Primate Use of Language

Remarkably, Loulis nonetheless acquired more than 50 signs by watching the other chimps. Bob Ingersoll, who studied Washoe and Loulis, observed that there was little active teaching on the part of the adult chimps. Loulis' language acquisition thus reflects the manner in which human children acquire language. The Gardners concluded from Loulis' acquisition of language through observation of the other chimps that: "once introduced, sign language is robust and self-reporting, unlike the systems that depend on special apparatuses such as the Rumbaugh keyboards or the Premack plastic tokens.

Herb Terrace doubted that primate language is any sort of equivalent of human language.


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  5. He did not believe that the findings of language acquisition and use in Washoe, Loulis, and other primates were truly symbolic of language acquisition. Instead, he theorized that there were simpler explanations for the behaviors which had been interpreted as language use by primates Morgan's Canon! Terrace also thought that primates only signed in order to please their trainers, not for the personal gratification of using the signs.

    Terrace also says that a primate might learn to connect a sign with food and reproduce the sign through simple conditioning, just as Pavlov's dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. Therefore, Terrace decided to conduct his own study of primate language use.



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