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Taking turns: The ‘missing’ link in language evolution?

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - TURNTAKING (Taking turns: The ‘missing’ link in language evolution?)

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-12-31

Language — the most distinctive human trait — remains a ‘mystery’(Knight, Studdert-Kennedy, & Hurford, 2000) or even a ‘problem’(Hauser et al., 2014) for evolutionary theory. It is underpinned by cooperative turn-taking (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974), which has been implicated with highly sophisticated cognitive skills such as mindreading (Tomasello, 2008). Some have claimed that this turn-taking system is uniquely human (Melis, Grocke, Kalbitz, & Tomasello, 2016; Yamamoto & Tanaka, 2009), but others argue that it provides the evolutionary ‘missing link’ between animal and human communication (Levinson & Holler, 2014). This debate has been constrained by a lack of comparative data, methodological confounds that often prevent meaningful comparisons, and a lack of information on key components of social relationships (Cords & Aureli, 2000; Fraser, Schino, & Aureli, 2008) that might strongly impact upon turn-taking propensities.
Objectives: TURNTAKING will quantify turn-taking production and comprehension in human children, chimpanzees, and two distantly related species — geladas and common marmosets. It will apply a powerful combination of systematic behavioral observations, eye-tracking paradigms, and established measures from Conversational Analysis(Sacks et al., 1974; Schegloff, 2007) and Primatology(Fraser et al., 2008) that allow the same type of data to be collected and analyzed in directly comparable ways across species. This will provide the first rigorous test of whether cooperative turn-taking is uniquely human, ancestral in the primate lineage, or evolved independently in different species. TURNTAKING will identify which hallmarks of human turn-taking are shared across different primate species, and which key components of relationship quality (Cords & Aureli, 2000; Fraser et al., 2008) act upon turn-taking skills.
Outcomes: This project will found the field of comparative turn-taking, and provide pioneering insights into the behavioral flexibility underlying different turn-taking systems. It will go beyond the state of the art by exposing whether cooperative turn-taking is the evolutionary ‘missing link’ between our species and our inarticulate primate cousins, and whether pro-social behaviors drove its emergence.
The TURNTAKING project encountered several challenges: (i) SARS-COV-2 virus; (ii) civil war in Ethiopia; (iii) individual problems possibly caused by SARS-COV-2 virus; and (iv) filling of positions with high-quality personal. As outlined in the report, I have continued to prioritize actions related to data collection in terms of turn-taking production and writing of review articles: Given its longitudinal nature and the high number of projects on wild-living nonhuman primates, actions on data collection cannot be delayed without irreparable damage to the dataset. Hence, our focus in this period has been to wait and hope for the possibility to go to the field and to carry out the originally planned high quality data collection. This has necessitated the reallocation and change of roles of core members, splitting of planned positions and projects to ensure data collection is made possible and is optimized and well managed and conducted. One unfortunate consequence of this is that, given the challenges faced, the project is only in its beginning with the main data collection only starting in 2021. Although one PhD-student (Lara M. Southern) is coding and analyzing a first data set (work packages 7, 8 and 10), we are still only in the beginning of the data collection phase of the TURNTAKING project (work packages 6 and 9) or will only start in the next coming months (work packages 1, 4, 5, 6 and 9). Hence, addressing the proposed three key issues of the project will not be possible without an extension to the project of 24 months. As mentioned before, we started a new collaboration with the ACCI, so that one experiment with one nonhuman primate species will be carried out until the end of 2021. In addition, the team members Lara M. Southern and Sam Cosper and I are currently designing and writing three review papers on turn-taking production in nonhuman primates and the development of turn-taking in human children. With these papers, we try to establish the new field of comparative turn-taking and to counteract the impact of the Pandemic on our planned publication output.