The role of gesture is much discussed at the Evolang conference in Barcelona this week. The ability of apes to learn some hand signs has always made people wonder how much more is possible. But after a series of presentations this afternoon (Friday, March 14, 2008) I will be hard put to believe that ape gestures have anything to do with the start of human language. I say this despite a very touching (so to speak) film clip showing an orangutan putting out its hand to a fellow orang, who took and held the offered hand. Who’s heart could not cry out Ahh at that scene?
First off in a series of three consecutive presentations about gesture was archaelogist Rebecca Harrison. Officially her talk established that the ape species are not given to favoring one hand. It had its technical uses because in the corridors of the conference I have heard a surprising amount of debate over the question, but the reasons are too arcane to dwell on here. The main thing it did was remind me that apes are practical animals. They use their hands to reach for things, to scratch, to hit, much less so to caress, pet, or shape things.
The second presentation was by two young students of English, Slawomir Wacewicz and Przemyslaw Zywiczynski. They proposed that the first protolanguage was gestural, but that was pure speculation, provocative but not much of a stool to build on. More intriguing was something they pointed out about gesture, which is that it is a way of communicating in secret. Speech broadcasts, but gestures can permit conspiracy even in a public place. The silence of the gesture avoids letting in every eavesdropper in on your news. They had film of a volleyball game in which team members flashed signals behind their backs, so their own teammates could see but not their rivals.
Apes don’t use that kind of gesture. The next presentation described how apes gesture. They begin by formally orienting themselves toward the other, hardly a secretive or conspiratorial behavior. It made me thinking how apes are even community-minded enough to engage in conspiracies the way humans do. The presenters were busy describing a method of communication that might arise in a world where trust was very unstable so that secretive messages were preferred, and I was thinking how apes are not even up to that level of confidence.
The presentation that describe how apes face one another came from a psychologist, Katja Liebal, who has studied ape gesture. Most of ape gestures are requests, very unlike the topic-oriented gestures and sentences of human communications. And of course, ape gestures never form combinations to express a compound meaning.
Finishing off my sense of difference between apes and us, I bumped into Susan Goldin-Meadow, whose presentation on gesture the day before (see: Gesture Adds More than Structure) had been the talk of the hallways. I asked her how sign-languages signaled irony. She immediately introduced me to Wendy Sandler, an expert on signing, who told me that things expressed through intonation in speech are expressed through facial expression while signing. So there is another level of communicative gesture unused by apes. Facial expression to share mood, secrecy to keep cliques informed while outsiders stay ignorant, and the thousand uses of the hand that go beyond the practical minimum are universals of humanity and universally absent among the apes.