The Evolution of Communication

Marc D. Hauser

The MIT Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999
In The Evolution of Communication Hauser approaches communication using the framework of Tinbergen, combining perspectives based on mechanism, ontogeny, function, and phylogeny. As he argues,
"a complete analysis of communication requires a richly comparative perspective that grapples with how communicative systems work (neurobiological, developmental, and cognitive processes), why there are both similarities and differences in design across species, and what the functional consequences of such design features are for an organism's survival and reproduction."

Hauser separates mechanism into the neurobiological and the psychological and integrates phylogenetics with the other approaches, giving him four principal chapters — on neurobiological, ontogenetic, adaptive, and psychological design and communication.

This is a huge scope, but Hauser restricts himself in order to allow for deeper analysis. He concentrates almost exclusively on visual and auditory modes of communication and phylogenetically on vertebrates. And he makes no attempt at comprehensiveness even there (despite a bibliography that runs to 75 dense pages). Instead, he takes a few well-studied domains — mating calls in frogs and birds, echolocation in bats, squirrel and primate alarm calls, primate social communication, human language, and a few others — and presents key experimental results and theoretical frameworks in detail. Techniques and methodologies are covered where important.

The approach spans many disciplines — neurobiology, child development, psychology, ethology, and linguistics, to name just a few — and one of Hauser's goals is to encourage inter-disciplinary cross-over by "reviewing research in areas that commonly exist in the intellectual equivalent of solitary confinement". So The Evolution of Communication, while technical, is aimed at people exploring beyond their own fields; it is also ideal for the informed general reader.

The figures and diagrams are primitive and the halftones grainy, but The Evolution of Communication is an excellent illustration of how this doesn't matter when one has the right figures and halftones, properly captioned and integrated with the text. Ecumenical in approach but at the same time precise and rigorous in matters of detail, it is a work which deserves widespread recognition.

August 1999

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%T The Evolution of Communication
%A Hauser, Marc D.
%I The MIT Press
%D 1997
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0262581558
%P xiii,760pp