The Uniqueness of Man

Salikoko S. Mufwene s-mufwene at UCHICAGO.EDU
Fri Sep 18 16:31:32 UTC 2009

Another complement to Anderson's book is Michael Tomasello's /Origins of
Human Communication/ (MIT Press, 2008). I find the book overly
repetitive but it sheds interesting light on differences between animal
communication and human language(s).


Herb Stahlke wrote:
> I haven't read the Anderson book either, but I've followed that
> literature ever since working with the Lana Project at Yerkes in
> Atlanta in the late 70s.  The arena is one with highly mobile goal
> posts.  When animals are shown to be capable of some language-like
> behavior the definition changes to exclude that or at least make it
> insufficient.  What serious researchers in the field are doing,
> though, is not attempting to prove that other higher primates are
> capable of language but rather investigating the cognitive requisites
> for language and the use of such species as behavior models for
> research.  Duane Rumbaugh has a couple of very interesting recent
> papers that survey the field he's been working in for forty years.
> See for example
> Emergents and Rational Behaviorism.  Eyes on Psy Chi, Winter 2002.
> A Salience Theory of Learning and Behavior: With Perspectives on
> Neurobiology and Cognition.  International Journal of Primatology
> (0164-0291) 10/01/2007. Vol.28,Iss.5;p.973-996.
> Both sides, unfortunately, are prone to overblown arguments.
> Herb
> On Fri, Sep 18, 2009 at 8:15 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>> Subject:      The Uniqueness of Man
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> With the excuse of its relationship to Teenglish, I ask a question
>> about _Doctor Dolittle's Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of
>> Human Language_, by Stephen R. Anderson.
>> His book (which I admit I have not read to the end yet; it's been
>> recalled by the library) strikes me as an anguished cry for the
>> biologically-predetermined uniqueness of humans among all of God's
>> creations with respect to language.  (His ilk lost one battle --
>> although a fringe is still fighting -- with the recognition of
>> evolution, another over using and making tools, and so on.)
>> Every chapter ends with the conclusion that, if a particular type of
>> communication in the animal just discussed is biologically
>> determined, innate, and especially if humans have or do something
>> similar, then how can one deny that language in humans is also
>> innate.  False logic, I believe.  But also -- If humans are like
>> these various animals, then how can Anderson deny that some animals
>> might be like us -- such as (other) primates in their ability to
>> understand, learn, and use language?
>> Set aside the fact that chimpanzees don't have a physical vocal
>> apparatus that would permit them to speak English.  Some humans don't
>> either, but they can use human language via other modes.
>> Joel
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Salikoko S. Mufwene                    s-mufwene at
The Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College
Professor, Committee on Evolutionary Biology
University of Chicago                  773-702-8531; FAX 773-834-0924
Department of Linguistics
1010 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637, USA

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