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The Talking ApeReview - The Talking Ape
How Language Evolved
by Robbins Burling
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by Christina Behme, M.Sc., M.A.
Oct 24th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 43)

According to Robin Burling questions about the evolution of language are intriguing but difficult to answer because researchers cannot rely on any direct (fossil) evidence. He claims that any theorizing about language evolution has to depart from one of two anchor points: (i) the communication-behavior of our closest primate cousins (chimpanzees and bonobos) as an approximation of the starting point and (ii) the languages spoken by modern humans as the endpoint. To bridge the gap between these two endpoints Burling proposes as the central argument of his book, "that language comprehension, rather than production, was the driving force for the human ability to use language" (p.4). His somewhat counterintuitive approach refocuses attention from the "obvious" part of language (speaking) to the occasionally neglected part (understanding) and offers a solution to one of the most vexing puzzles of language evolution: language seems necessary to use language, so how could it evolve in a pre-linguistic species? Burling suggests that the puzzle dissolves when we recognize that communication does not begin with a meaningful vocalization or gesture but with the interpretation of the behavior of another individual. An individual who can understand another's action even when no communication has been attempted gains an evolutionary significant advantage (p.20). And, because social animals naturally engage in countless instrumental acts, there is always a lot to interpret. Throughout his book Burling supplies a wealth of details about language, communication, and the human mind to support his argument.

The first three chapters contain a detailed comparison between human language and animal communication systems. Burling's rejection of the idea that language could have evolved from primate calls is based on two facts. First, there are significant differences between language and any known animal communication system. Second, human communication is not restricted to language but includes also a complex system of non-linguistic referential vocalizations (oh-oh, uh-uh, etc.) paralinguistic elements (intonation, gesticulation), and "gesture calls" (laughs sobs, screams, frowns, etc.). The latter seem to be homologous to primate calls and probably have the same evolutionary roots. This means that we can learn a lot about the evolutionary roots of our own gesture calls by comparing them to the calls of other primates; but for the roots of language we need to look elsewhere.

Next, using the example of 'monolinguistic demonstration', Burling illustrates the essential pre-requisites for learning a language: (i) shared conceptual understanding of the world, (ii) joint attention, (iii) ability to imitate, (iv) ability to understand iconic gestures, and (v) pattern finding skills. He elaborates on the importance of these pre-requisites and shows how all of them could have been useful to the pre-linguistic hominins and how their combination greatly improved the ability to communicate. Natural selection is, according to Burling, the only plausible 'launching mechanism' for language: "Selection for better communication brought language into existence and fostered its development" (p.91). Other possible launching mechanisms are briefly introduced and dismissed.

Burling describes in the following six chapters a possible way in which a system of communication could have evolved from motivated signs (which refer somewhat directly to objects or actions) to the conventional symbols of modern languages (which seem to be entirely arbitrary and fail to resemble the things they refer to in any obvious way). Burling employs a classification system that was first suggested by Peirce (1968) and was used in an almost identical context by Deacon (1997). It is based on three fundamentally different methods of reference: icons, which resemble objects; indices, which point to objects; and symbols, which refer by convention. And, while spoken language depends almost exclusively on arbitrary symbols most of the paralinguistic systems have maintained iconicity to some degree. Again, Burling stresses similarities and differences between animal communication and our gesture call system (p. 108). He considers it plausible that the arbitrary words of modern language originated from iconic symbols and illustrates how written languages (e.g., Sumerian, Chinese, p.112f) and sign languages (ASL) moved over time from iconic to more and more arbitrary signs. As before, Burling emphasizes that the growing ability of the listener to interpret the intentions of the speaker was the driving force towards more complex and arbitrary symbolic communication. He stresses that motivational signs are easier to learn but arbitrary signs reduce ambiguities and allow us to express complex thoughts and abstract concepts (p.120). Burling speculates that language did not develop from communicative gestures but from earlier forms of vocalizations. It probably shares the same roots as music (chanting and singing). He proposes a long step-by-step evolution from a holistic single word stage over two-word combinations to the complex syntactic structures of modern languages (p.150). The justification for this type of argument is familiar ever since Dawkins (1986): a sequence of steps of simpler but still useful forms of a trait can bridge the gap between no trait at all and a highly complex trait (p.152). Burling speculates about plausible processes that could have carried a loosely gathered group of initial words over thousands of generations of speakers towards a structured modern kind of complex grammar (p.180).

The final two chapters deal with slightly different questions: (i) what is the main purpose of language and (ii) how did language-use change our lives? Burling holds that our complex language could not have evolved exclusively for practical purposes (e.g., information exchange, coordination of activities, teaching children) because, considering the level of technology of our Paleolithic ancestors, a very simple (pidgin-like) language would have sufficed for such purposes. Following Dunbar (1997), Burling suggests that language evolved mainly as a means for establishing, maintaining, and refining social relationships (p.193). In his opinion sexual selection would be a plausible mechanism for language evolution: superior language skills could be one means for acquiring leadership and leadership could improve chances for reproductive success. Burling believes that language has influenced the way we perceive the world and allowed us to invent the kind of life we live today. "Complex language evolved as a delicate instrument for engaging in ever more intricate social relationships and language continues to serve this purpose"  (p.227).

Overall, Burling has written an informative, very readable book that is accessible to a wide audience. He kept jargon to a minimum, explained crucial terms in a glossary, and provided an extensive bibliography that will be helpful for anyone who wants to research the subject further. Burling supplies both, a wealth of carefully researched information about many aspects of human language and insightful speculation that could motivate further research.



Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton.

Deacon, T. (1997). The Symbolic Species. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Dunbar, R. (1997). Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peirce, C. (1968). Über die Klarheit unserer Gedanken. Frankfurt/Main: V. Klostermann.


© 2006 Christina Behme


Christina Behme, MSc (1986, Biology, University Rostock, Germany), MA (2005, Philosophy, Dalhousie University) is currently a PhD student in the philosophy department at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research interests are philosophy of mind and psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy of language.


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