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CoEDL Seminar: Great Ape Gestures, Communicative Intentions, and the Evolution of Language, Richard Moore, 24 Mar

Australian National University, Evolution

Date: 20 March 2017

Seminar: Great Ape Gestures, Communicative Intentions, and the Evolution of Language

Speaker: Richard Moore (Berlin School of Mind & Brain)

Time: 3:30pm-5:00pm

Date: Friday 24 March 2017

Venue: CoEDL Engma Seminar Room (5019) HC Coombs Building, ANU


According to a standard view (Tomasello 2008; Scott-Phillips 2014), humans acquire language because we possess biological adaptations for acting with and understanding the communicative intentions that are necessary for language development. It is because pre-verbal children possess the socio-cognitive abilities required for Gricean communication that they acquire language; and it is because great apes lack these abilities that they do not. While apes also lack other features necessary for language-use – e.g., abilities for syntax, and the descended larynx needed for human speech – without the this understanding of communicative intentions in place, their language development never gets off the ground.

In this talk (the first of two), I revisit the empirical foundations of the arguments of the standard view. I argue that existing evidence is better interpreted as showing that apes do understand communicative intentions, but that their abilities for pragmatic interpretation are limited in comparison to our own. 

This has important conclusions for our understanding of language evolution. On the standard view, language evolution became possible only following a revolution in the socio-cognitive abilities of our ancestors, following the split of the Pan-Homo clade. I defend a more gradualistic alternative, according to which uniquely human socio-cognitive abilities may be a product of our communicative interactions. On this story, the emergence of human-like forms of communication may have been driven less by biological change than by ecological changes that forced our ancestors do more with the communicative abilities that they possessed but did not use.

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