The Uniqueness of Man

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Fri Sep 18 17:30:06 UTC 2009

At 9/18/2009 12:31 PM, Salikoko S. Mufwene wrote:
>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).

I probably won't read this, since Tomasello is a disbeliever in
ape-language, but I wonder whether he comes to the conclusion, to the
unproductive yes-no question "Do apes have language?", of "No."  And
"Language is innate, biologically hard-wired, in humans, and in no
other animals," as I presume Pinker and Chomsky claim?  (I haven't
read them either, and probably won't.)

>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

As Sue Savage-Rumbaugh says, in the jointly-authored _Apes, Language,
and the Human Mind_ (1998).  (An unfortunately very difficult book,
one not likely to appeal to the general intelligent reader.)

>>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

Why is the subject so often expressed as "language," as though it
were one single thing, defined by some set of criteria (as Herb
writes, frequently varying), rather than as "various kinds of
language capability" (with then, of course, different characteristics
for each kind)?  Reminds me of IQ as the single measure of
intelligence -- where is Stephen Jay Gould when we need him on ape-language?

And why is "language" described in terms of a hierarchy of abilities,
when there may be a more complex relationship among the abilities,
such as (speaking mathematically) a network?  Or must it be a
hierarchy so that man can reside at the top?

>>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.

Thanks for this citation; it's more recent than the pro ape-language
books I'm aware of, and I've been reluctant to try searching the
(voluminous?) literature.


>>Both sides, unfortunately, are prone to overblown arguments.
>>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.
>>>The American Dialect Society -
>>The American Dialect Society -
>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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