PerspectiveDevelopment

Marmoset kids actually listen

Science  14 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6249, pp. 688-689
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac7860

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Summary

Undergraduate linguistics courses typically present language as unique to humans. Chomsky and others have postulated a language organ that evolved in hominids. This idea found modest support in the lack of evidence for vocal production learning (imitating sounds) in nonhuman primates. But did language suddenly emerge in the Homo lineage as a “hopeful monster” (1) who could learn new sounds and meanings? Evidence for vocal learning in nonhuman primates is now emerging (2, 3), and in hindsight, looking at vocal production learning as the sole evolutionary precursor of language might have been shortsighted. Similar developmental processes can lead to different end points, and minor modifications of a primitive developmental program can create very different creatures. On page 734 of this issue, Takahashi et al. (4) provide evidence for a developmental process, rather than its endpoint, which reveals a shared developmental program for animal communication and human language. This indicates an ancestral developmental program that is shared not only between humans and other primates but also across mammals and birds.

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