Evolutionary Psychology

Psychologists speculate as to whether human’s language use is qualitatively or quantitatively different from other animal communication (Cooper and Kaye, 2002). Language use and theory of the mind are interconnected, as the interaction between these two phenomena allows humans to communicate complex ideas and communicate specific reactions to others (Sperber, 2000). However, on the basis of evidence already explored in this essay, theory of the mind co-exists in other animals, albeit at a quantitatively lower level. Apes have been taught sign-language, and have been able to respond appropriately to trainers questions (Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin, 1994). Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin (1994) argued that their research proved that bonobo communication was comparable to that of a 2.5 year old human.

Therefore, the difference between human and non-human communication was quantitative, and did not indicate a significant difference between humans and other animals. However, it was difficult to interpret whether the apes understood the language, or if they merely responded to the sound of speech. Although the apes could react to language, their inability to produce language suggested that their cognitive-linguistic abilities could be qualitatively different to humans. Furthermore, humans have been found to have unique anatomical features necessary for speech (Cooper and Kaye, 2002).

Aitchison (1983) proposed ten design features of language. He concluded that four of these characteristics were uniquely human and that the differences were of a significant qualitative nature. Aitchison (1983) believed that semanticity was uniquely human, in that humans were the only type of animal that could appreciate that words reflected aspects of the world. However, Littleton et al (2002) argued that animals could also form internal representations like humans. Atchison (1983) also believed that displacement was a uniquely human characteristic, as humans can speak about the past, present and future.

Pinker (1994) concurred that that language was a unique human ability, as animals merely communicate in the ‘here and now’ whereas humans communicate on a distinctly higher level. However, there is no proof that animals are incapable of this higher form of communication, it is merely presumed (Cooper and Kaye, 2002). Aitchison (1983) also felt that animals did not understand the human concept of syntax or creativity as regards language, and these abilities made humans qualitatively different to other animals. As it is difficult to prove that primates possess these skills, it seems that humans do indeed possess unique linguistic abilities.

Specific linguistic abilities seem to separate us from other animals. Biological features also disconnect us from other animals. Human infants depend on adults for a longer time than other adults due to their initial small brain size and socialisation requirements (Hollway et al, 2002). Furthermore, as females have a hidden oestrus, unlike other primates, humans enjoy sexual relations throughout their menstrual cycle, and this ensures that males stay with their female in order to ensure that they become the father of her offspring.

This need for commitment is a unique human characteristic and it has been found in a number of cultures (Buss et al, 1992). Gender is plainly a human issue which separates us from other animals, as sexual relationships are influenced by many cultural and individual factors. Gender is maintained through discourses, so animals cannot be engendered as they do not engage in sophisticated discourses. These are significant qualitative differences which differentiate humans from other animals (Hollway et al, 2002).

Humans are comparable to other animals on many levels. Other animals possess traits that were previously presume to be distinctly human. Animals can communicate, and some bonobos are capable of complex communication as they use sign language successfully (Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin, 1998). Animals develop strong attachments which are comparable to human attachments (Bowlby, 1988, Harlow and Harlow, 1969). Animals can engage in complex thought processes, and their theory of the mind development is comparable to a 2.5 year old child (Whiten, 1997).

However, animals do not possess the physical ability to speak, and it is presumed that they do not possess the same complex linguistic ability as humans (Pinker, 1994 and Aitchison, 1983). Furthermore, animals do not experience the same cultural gender influences as humans, as they cannot engage in the higher form of discourse that is unique to humans (Buss et al, 1992). Although animals have been shown to possess many traits that were previously thought to be exclusively human, there are significant and qualitative differences between humans and other animals.


Aitchison, J. (1983) The Articulate Mammal, (2nd edn) Oxford, Blackwell.

Bowlby J (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Tavistock professional book. London: Routledge

Baron-Cohen, S. (1999) ‘The evolution of a theory of mind’ in Corballis, M.C. and Lea, S.E.G. (eds) The Descent of Mind, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Buss, D.M., Larsen, R. Westen, D., and Semmelroth, J. (1992) ‘Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology and psychology’, Psychological Science, vol.3, pp.251-55.

Clegg, H. (2002) ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ in Miell, D., Phoenix, A., and Thomas, K., (eds.) Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Cooper T. and Kaye, H. (2002) ‘Language and meaning’ In T. Cooper & I. Roth (Eds.), Challenging Psychological Issues (pp. 1-64). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Freud, Sigmund (1923), Das Ich und das Es, Internationaler Psycho-analytischer Verlag, Leipzig, Vienna, and Zurich. English translation, The Ego and the Id, Joan Riviere (trans.), Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-analysis, London, UK, 1927. Revised for The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, James Strachey (ed.), W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY, 1961.

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