Two organizing principles of vocal production: Implications for nonhuman and human primates



Vocal communication in nonhuman primates receives considerable research attention, with many investigators arguing for similarities between this calling and speech in humans. Data from development and neural organization show a central role of affect in monkey and ape sounds, however, suggesting that their calls are homologous to spontaneous human emotional vocalizations while having little relation to spoken language. Based on this evidence, we propose two principles that can be useful in evaluating the many and disparate empirical findings that bear on the nature of vocal production in nonhuman and human primates. One principle distinguishes production-first from reception-first vocal development, referring to the markedly different role of auditory-motor experience in each case. The second highlights a phenomenon dubbed dual neural pathways, specifically that when a species with an existing vocal system evolves a new functionally distinct vocalization capability, it occurs through emergence of a second parallel neural pathway rather than through expansion of the extant circuitry. With these principles as a backdrop, we review evidence of acoustic modification of calling associated with background noise, conditioning effects, audience composition, and vocal convergence and divergence in nonhuman primates. Although each kind of evidence has been interpreted to show flexible cognitively mediated control over vocal production, we suggest that most are more consistent with affectively grounded mechanisms. The lone exception is production of simple, novel sounds in great apes, which is argued to reveal at least some degree of volitional vocal control. If also present in early hominins, the cortically based circuitry surmised to be associated with these rudimentary capabilities likely also provided the substrate for later emergence of the neural pathway allowing volitional production in modern humans. Am. J. Primatol. 73:530–544, 2011. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.