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  • The simian tongue: The long debate about animal language
  • Robbins Burling
The simian tongue: The long debate about animal language. By Gregory Radick. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 577. ISBN 9780226702247. $45 (Hb).

Gregory Radick's thoughtful and gracefully written book is, at its most explicit (and most superficial) level, a history of playback experiments in the study of animal vocal communication, and of the implications of these experiments for our understanding of the evolution of the human capacity for language. Early chapters tell the astonishing story of an American named Richard Garner, who in the 1890s actually carried out playback experiments with captive apes, using an early phonograph equipped with wax cylinders. He even launched an expedition to West Africa where he hoped (but failed) to play recordings back to wild chimpanzees and gorillas, so as to learn to understand the meaning and use of their calls. The book ends, except for a brief concluding chapter, with a detailed account of the famous playback experiments of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth that showed how vervet monkeys are warned of eagles, pythons, and leopards by the contrasting calls of other vervets. Before and between these two bracketing sections, R makes occasional references to playbacks, but he also ventures into a wide range of topics that bear, in some way, on playbacks, but that have at least as much interest in their own right. At times, the topic of playbacks seems almost forgotten, but the result is a rich history of the struggle to understand language in a Darwinian framework.

One topic that R bumps up against repeatedly, but addresses directly and in a general way only in the very last section of his book, is the conflict between gradualist and saltationist (or 'catastrophist') views of evolution. From Darwin's time, language has always been a problem for gradualists. Everyone has recognized that it is language, more than anything else, that sets humans apart from the apes, but constructing a gradualist scenario for getting from apes that have no language to humans who are drenched with it has been so difficult that saltationist theories have always been a temptation. R reviews the intense nineteenth-century debate when, from one side, [End Page 244] Max Müller scoffed at gradualist attempts to find anticipations of language in animal calls, while, from the other side, people like William Dwight Whitney poured scorn back on Müller. Darwin himself avoided the public debate, but his notebooks show that he recognized the language gap very clearly but thought it could be overcome. By the end of the nineteenth century, Müller's position had effectively won, and speculation about how the capacity for language might have evolved lost its respectability among serious scholars.

Outside the mainstream, however, gradualism lived on, and Richard Garner and his wax cylinders make their appearance in Ch. 3. Garner had no academic training or affiliation, but he was an energetic amateur, an adept showman, and a skillful self-publicist. He lectured to enthusiastic audiences, wrote widely for the popular press, and allowed himself to be called 'Dr. Garner' or 'Professor Garner'. He expected to be able to demonstrate that apes have a primitive vocal language. Like many of his contemporaries, he presumed that the languages of the 'savages' (as they were then called) were far less developed than the languages of more advanced 'races', so he expected to find a continuum that led from lower animals, by way of the primates and then the savages, all the way to the languages of the most civilized people.

Garner set up his phonograph at New York's Central Park zoological garden and he recorded, and even played back, primate calls. His experiments attracted considerable popular attention, and he then undertook an expedition to West Africa, where he planned to record and play back the calls of apes in their native habitat and, in that way, to discover 'the simian tongue'. He consulted with Thomas Edison about modifications to the phonograph to make it a more useful tool in the field. He assembled equipment including a large metal cage in which he proposed to live while safely observing...


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