Evolution of communicative flexibility

Evolution of communicative flexibility: Complexity, creativity, and adaptability in human and animal communication. Ed. by D. Kimbrough Oller and Ulrike Griebel. (Vienna series in theoretical biology.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Pp. x, 356. ISBN 9780262151214. $50 (Hb).

Reviewed by Iris F. Levitis, University of Rostock

This edited volume addresses the question ‘What is communicative flexibility and what evolutionary conditions can produce it?’ (4). The editors D. Kimbrough Oller and Ulrike Griebel have compiled research emerging from a workshop at the Konrad Lorenz Institute that grapples with this question that lies at the intersection of evolutionary biology and linguistics. Section 1 ‘Introduction’ consists of the editors’ introduction to this work, ‘Signal and functional flexibility in the emergence of communication’ (3–6). This volume is divided into four subsequent areas: cross-species comparisons, flexibility, the exploration of flexibility, and different approaches to modeling flexibility.

The contributors in Section 2, ‘Cross-species perspectives on forces and patterns of flexibility in communication’, attempt to understand similarities and differences in developmental patterns. Griebel and Oller begin in Ch. 2, ‘Evolutionary forces favoring communicative flexibility’ (9–40), by providing working definitions of signals, flexibility, and function, and outline the factors that might cause communicative flexibility. Ronald J. Schusterman reviews and summarizes the literature that supports pinniped vocal learning and offers additional evidence based on harbor seal and walrus studies of vocal learning in Ch. 3 ‘Vocal learning in mammals with special emphasis on pinnipeds’ (41–70). The species examined in the next article, ‘Contextually flexible communication in nonhuman primatespeds’ (71–92), by Charles T. Snowdon are nonhuman primates. In this chapter, the author summarizes the literature on developmental and adult communicative flexibility. Kurt Hammerschmidt and Julia Fischer observe the differences between nonhuman primates’ and humans’ ability to produce sounds in Ch. 5, ‘Constraints in primate vocal production’ (93–120). Martine Hausberger, Laurence Henry, Benoît Testé, and Stéphanie Barbu conclude this section in Ch. 6. In their article, ‘Contextual sensitivity and bird song: A basis for social life’ (121–138), the authors focus on song birds and explore the social context of their vocal production.

Section 3 ‘The role of flexibility and communicative complexity in the evolution of language’ switches attention to the development of communicative skills within humans. Oller and Griebel provide an overview of the developmental stages of human communication in Ch. 7, ‘Contextual flexibility in infant vocal development and the earliest steps in the evolution of language’ (141–68). In Ch. 8, ‘Scoalds for babbling: Innateness and learning in the emergence of contextually flexible vocal production in human infantsal lifeo’ (169–92), Michael J. Owren and Michael H. Goldstein put forward a babbling-scaffold hypothesis for the development of language in human infants. Brian MacWhinney suggests in Ch. 9, ‘Cognitive precursors to language’ (193–214), that human communicative ability is a result of the convergence of bipedalism, manual control, neoteny, and social bonding. Kim Sterelny considers how language evolved in the way that it did in Ch. 10, ‘Language and niche construction’ (215–32).

Section 4 ‘Underpinnings of communicative control: Foundations for flexible communication’ pursues two factors that might have contributed to the development of human communication systems. Josep Call illustrates the flexibility with which apes use gestures despite the limitations of vocal production in Ch. 11 ‘How apes use gestures: The issue of flexibility’ (235–52). Ch. 12, ‘The role of play in the evolution and ontogeny of contextually flexible communication’ (253–78), written by Stan Kuczaj and Radhika Makecha, reflects on the role of play in the development of communication.

In the final section, Section 5 ‘Modeling of the emergence of complexity and flexibility in communication’, a mathematical approach is taken to theorize the development of communicative flexibility. Brenda McCowan, Laurance Doyle, Allison B. Kaufman, Sean Hanser, and Curt Burgess apply both information theory and the hyperspace analog to language (HAL) model to animal communication in Ch. 13, ‘Detection and estimation of complexity and contextual flexibility in nonhuman animal communication’ (281–304). In this article, the authors interpret bottlenose dolphin whistles in order to match the behavior with the corresponding sound. Robert F. Lachlan scrutinizes bird song versatility to determine the possible purposes behind its flexibility in Ch. 14, ‘The evolution of flexibility in bird song’ (305–36). Lastly, Gert Westermann proposes a perception-action model to account for the gradual development of the articulatory system of human infants, and ultimately the mapping between perceived and produced sounds, in Ch. 15 ‘Development and evolution of speech sound categories’ (327–46).