Clue to How Human Behavior Evolved

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on July 7, 2012
Featured in News to Know

Gentle gorilla "gestural motherese" said by some to be a clue to how human behavior evolved.

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Baby talk—“gestural motherese” to anthropologists—is not just a uniquely human way of communicating, according to a study of gorillas published in June in the Journal of American Primatology. Eva Maria Luef and Katja Liebal filmed 24 lowland gorillas in two zoos to analyze the way gorillas communicate during play. Samples from the 120 hours of video may be seen at and

Researchers were surprised to see that adult female gorillas “used more tactile gestures than they use with other adults, touching, stroking and lightly slapping the youngsters.” In a gesture the researchers call hand-on, “mothers put the flat hand of their hand on top of the [infant's] head,” meaning “stop it,” explained Luef. The gesture was used repetitively and gently with an infant, whereas when used more forcefully with a fellow adult seemed to mean, “I've had enough.”

Infant gorillas also communicated with the adults using similar gestures. “The adults, when addressing them, may have that in mind, knowing the infants prefer tactile gestures,” Luef said. She indicated she is “less certain about why the older gorillas repeated their gestures with infants, but it's possible that the older gorillas know that their messages are easier to comprehend when repeated.” But she said this sort of repetitive gentle gestural communication helps “infants to build the repertoire of signals they will use as adults, in order to communicate with the rest of the gorilla group as well as shows that older animals possess a certain awareness of the infants' immature communication skills.”

Among primates, the rhesus monkey is known to use a vocal kind of baby talk. Among humans, “regardless of their language, people baby-talk in the same way, with a raised pitch and a swooping, sing-song style.” Commenting on the research, Steve Ross, director of the E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, said, “Like many studies with primates, I think there is the potential to use this information to form some ideas about how human behavioral and cognitive processes have evolved.”

As we know from God's eyewitness account of His own creative activities 6,000 years ago, however, He created apes and humans the same day but very differently. Humans are made in the image of God. The fact that animals have ways of communicating with each other does not imply that humans evolved from animals. God created Adam and Eve with the ability to use verbal language to formulate and communicate complex abstract thoughts. In fact, as we discussed in last week’s News to Note, according to the Bible, prior to the incident at the Tower of Babel, all people continued to speak one language. Thus it is not surprising that, regardless of language, all humans communicate with their babies the same way. Evolution is not needed to explain this common feature of humanity, only the eyewitness account recorded in the Bible.

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