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Human Communication as a Primate Heritage

Instructor: Anne Zeller

Course Description

This is a course about where nonverbal communication came from and what functions it fulfills. Humans spend most of their time using words to communicate and very seldom realize the wealth of information that is present in nonverbal systems. These systems are all the more interesting because they came first, before the verbal system and thus the verbal aspects of communication rest on them. There are many questions about what actually constitues language and it is the investigation of the roots of communication which will help us to answer many of them. One of the main avenues of such investigation is the communication system of primates who are our closest living relatives. In many ways the primates represent the living fossil past of modern humans and the observations we can make on them as they interact in social systems helps us to understand how we functioned before we could speak.


Course Outline

The study of human communication has been galvanized by our increasing understanding of the patterns and potential of communication codes among our fellow primates. Although we were aware of many non-verbal modes of communication used by humans the real potential of face and body gestures, proxemics and kinesics, as vehicles for the transmission of information was not a focus of attention until fairly recently. Part of this is because of a lack of appreciation for the kinds of information which recent research has revealed can be transmitted in non-verbal systems. This course is intended to examine various non-verbal systems used by non-human primates beginning with a discussion of the nature of communication itself. In terms of codes I will discuss vocal communication and use of space and body movements, but will focus on my research on facial communicative gestures. The last part of the course will examine the functions of communication, the problems involved in examining deception, and the socialization process by which the young members of a group learn the species patterns. This should provide a framework for a better understanding of how human communication systems operate.



Aims of the Course.

There are three major aims of this course. The first of these is to introduce individuals to ideas of the complexity of communication systems in non human primates. Our understanding of this complexity has increased exponentially in the last 20 years. The second aim is to discuss evolutionary relationships of primates and humans and the implications of cultural evolution as humans were developing. In other words what kinds of social complexity can occur in primates who do not have language skills.

The third element of interest is to examine the functions of communication. Many people use communication codes all the time thinking that they know what they are doing and might be very surprised to find out the wide range of ways that they are sending messages, some of which might be quite contradictory.


Preliminary Reading.

These books are intended to introduce the reader to the general ideas in some of the lectures. There will be specific readings for each of the lectures suggested in the previous lecture. (These readings are not listed in any order)

Send comments or question to Anne Zeller: azeller@artspas.watstar.uwaterloo.ca
copyright 1999, Anne Zeller.


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