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The Simian Tongue

The Long Debate about Animal Language

In the early 1890s the theory of evolution gained an unexpected ally: the Edison phonograph. An amateur scientist used the new machine—one of the technological wonders of the age—to record monkey calls, play them back to the monkeys, and watch their reactions. From these soon-famous experiments he judged that he had discovered “the simian tongue,” made up of words he was beginning to translate, and containing the rudiments from which human language evolved. Yet for most of the next century, the simian tongue and the means for its study existed at the scientific periphery. Both returned to great acclaim only in the early 1980s, after a team of ethologists announced that experimental playback showed certain African monkeys to have rudimentarily meaningful calls.

Drawing on newly discovered archival sources and interviews with key scientists, Gregory Radick here reconstructs the remarkable trajectory of a technique invented and reinvented to listen in on primate communication. Richly documented and powerfully argued, The Simian Tongue charts the scientific controversies over the evolution of language from Darwin’s day to our own, resurrecting the forgotten debts of psychology, anthropology, and other behavioral sciences to the Victorian debate about the animal roots of human language.

578 pages | 39 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Biological Sciences: Behavioral Biology, Evolutionary Biology

History of Science

Language and Linguistics: General Language and Linguistics

Psychology: Animal Behavior, General Psychology


“Reacting to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the great Oxford linguist Max Müller declared that language formed a Rubicon that no animal dared to cross. Yet, if experiments could demonstrate that our presumptive relatives, apes and monkeys, had the rudiments of language—that they could even speak among themselves—that river would prove rather shallow. Gregory Radick traces, with stylistic dexterity and historical originality, the routes taken by theories of animal language and reason from the late nineteenth century through today. Along the way he uncovers the seamier side of scientific life and enough intrigue to be worthy of a detective novel.”

Robert J. Richards, University of Chicago

The Simian Tongue ranges deftly from philosophical discussions of the nature of language to technical and business questions relating to the development of sophisticated recording equipment, and from scientific papers to the often more sensational treatments of science provided by the press. It is original in its purview, impeccable in its scholarship and written with unusual energy, grace, and lucidity.”

Richard W. Burkhardt Jr., author of Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology

"An instructive read for anyone interested in the language barrier, or absence thereof, between humans and other animals."

Frans B. M. de Waal | Nature

"A masterwork in the history of science...The Simian Tongue reaches the status of a page-turner. . . . It reminds us with stunning clarity that science is a spiral staircase; new techniques and theories emerge, not always in linear fashion, from the old. It shows, too, science’s power to shape ways we humans think of, and act towards, our fellow creatures."

Barbara J. King | Times Literary Supplement

"Gregory’s Radick’s much-welcome monograph recovers and adroitly lays bare the shifting evolutionary implications, institutional fortunes and intellectual capital of one of the most fascinating experimental paradigms in the history of science: the primate playback experiment....The Simian Tongue is a ground-breaking work that will be of interest to historians of science, animal studies scholars, eco-critics, and to everyone interested in the relationship between evolutionary ideology and the politics of language."

Christine Ferguson | The British Society for Literature and Science

"Radick covers the issues and the characters carefully, thoughtfully, and in the process affords us a glimpse of the personal, professional, and political factors that shaped [the researchers’] enterprises. . . . How and why their impressions changed, and how the careers of many others were similarly influenced, makes engaging reading."

Drew Rendall | Evolutionary Anthropology

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  

Part One

            Chapter One
            The Language Barrier
            Chapter Two   
            Brains and Minds across the Barrier
            Chapter Three
            Professor Garner’s Phonograph

Part Two

            Chapter Four
            Congo Fever
            Chapter Five
            The Anthropologists and Animal Language
            Chapter Six
            The Psychologists and Animal Language

Part Three

            Chapter Seven
            Mr. Marler’s Spectrograph
            Chapter Eight
            Simian Semantics
            Chapter Nine
            Playbacks in Amboseli



History of Science Society: Pfizer Award
Short Listed/Finalist

History of Science Society: Suzanne J. Levinson Prize

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