Lectures and Talks

2015 James Arthur Lecture: On The Evolution Of The Human Brain

Thursday, March 5, 2015

James Arthur

THE LECTURE: The evolution of human language presents the greatest challenge for cognitive biology, and opinions vary wildly about the relevance of evidence from animals. Language is widely accepted as our most characteristic and critical cognitive attribute; and it is just too complex to have evolved in a single step, so precursors shared with non-­‐ human primates are to be expected. Researchers in search of these precursors have largely focused on primate vocalizations, with most work carried out on monkeys. Intense effort over the last 50 years has revealed many fascinating and subtle uses of monkey calls, but what is almost entirely missing is any evidence that a calling monkey's goal is to influence a particular audience. In contrast, human language is deeply intentional, as Paul Grice first pointed out: language is used with intent to influence the behavior and minds of others. Against this background, the discovery that great ape gestures are used intentionally is exciting: there is now abundant evidence that apes give gestures to produce specific, anticipated effects on a particular audience. Ape gestures ‘bridge the gap’ between animal signals and human language. I will review recent studies of gesture in chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans, both in captivity and under natural conditions in the field, and explain some of what they have found. Particular emphasis will be given to what the gestures mean; whether series of gestures have syntactic structure, in which the meaning depends on the organization; and how ape repertoires of gesture develop: are they acquired culturally, learned individually, or what? A picture is emerging of a communication system with puzzling properties, whose eventual decipherment will give a solid basis for understanding how the ‘great leap’ of acquiring language took place.

THE LECTURER: Dick Byrne is Research Professor in the School of Psychology at St Andrews University, Scotland, where his work focuses on the evolution of cognitive and social behavior, particularly the origins of distinctively human characteristics. After a degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, his PhD research was on human planning and thought. Since going to St Andrews, he has carried out field research on baboons, chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa, on topics including vocal and gestural communication, deception, and the acquisition of complex manual feeding techniques. These primate studies led to his writing The Thinking Ape (OUP, 1995), which was awarded the British Psychology Society’s Book Award 1997, and co-­‐editing Machiavellian Intelligence: Social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes and humans (OUP, 1988) and Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and evaluations (CUP, 1997). In addition to primates he has worked on several other social species: projects include social cognition of the domestic pig, in collaboration with veterinary researchers at Bristol University; complex social strategies in elephants, in collaboration with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants; and cognition in social lizards, in collaboration with researchers at Macquarie University, Australia. Postgraduates under his supervision have recently worked on monkey vocal communication, gaze understanding by lemurs and elephants, cognitive control of navigation by monkeys and apes, and gestural communication in chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. Professor Byrne has published 135 refereed journal articles and 67 invited book chapters. He is a founder-­‐member of the Scottish Primate Research Group, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

JAMES ARTHUR 1842-1930 Born in Ireland and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland, James Arthur came to New York in 1871. Trained in mechanics and gear cutting, he pursued a career in the manufacture and repair of machinery, during the course of which he founded a number of successful businesses and received patents on a variety of mechanical devices. He was particularly interested in horology, the science of measuring time. Early in the 20th century, James Arthur became associated with the AMNH, and began to expand his interest in time to evolutionary time, and his interest in mechanisms to that most precise and delicate mechanism of them all, the human brain. His fascination with the human brain led to his bequest to the AMNH permitting the establishment of the James Arthur Lectures on the Evolution of the Human Brain. The first lecture was given March 15, 1932.

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