The evolutionary roots of human communication are difficult to trace, but recent comparative research suggests that the first key step in that evolutionary history may have been the establishment of basic communicative flexibility - the ability to vocalize freely combined with the capability to coordinate vocalization with communicative intent. The contributors to this volume investigate how some species (particularly ancient hominids) broke free of the constraints of "fixed signals," actions that were evolved to communicate but lack the flexibility of language - a newborn infant's cry, for example, always signals distress and has a stereotypical form not modifiable by the crying baby. Fundamentally, the contributors ask what communicative flexibility is and what evolutionary conditions can produce it.
The accounts offered in these chapters are notable for taking the question of language origins farther back in evolutionary time than in much previous work. Many contributors address the very earliest communicative break of the hominid line from the primate background; others examine the evolutionary origins of flexibility in, for example, birds and marine mammals. The volume's interdisciplinary theoretical perspectives illuminate issues that are on the cutting edge of recent research on this topic.
From talking parrots and femme fatale fireflies to singing seals and human children, the authors leave few stones unturned in this wide- ranging and up-to-date survey. The topic--how organisms evolve flexible communication systems--is one of central relevance to the evolution of human spoken language --W. Tecumseh Fitch, University of St Andrews "Many books about communication deal with signals and signaling, but the relevance of these subjects to language--the elephant in the room--is linked to some key issues, particularly the flexibility, adaptability, and creativity with which complex signals are deployed. These issues are frequently downplayed, but Oller and Greibel, and a collection of impressive authors, tackle them head-on in this broad-ranging synthesis of contemporary biological science." --John L. Locke, Lehman College, City University of New York
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