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The Referential Problem Space revisited: An ecological hypothesis of the evolutionary and developmental origins of pointing

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Abstract Pointing by great apes poses a significant challenge to contemporary theories about the evolutionary and developmental foundations of cognitive development, because pointing has long been viewed by theoreticians as an evolved, human‐unique developmental stepping‐stone to linguistic reference. Although reports of pointing by great apes have existed in the scientific literature for over a century, only in recent decades has it become clear that ape pointing is definitely an intentionally communicative signal, by the same criteria we adjudge human pointing to be intentionally communicative. Theoretical responses to this changed empirical landscape have generally taken the approach of asserting, without any direct evidence (indeed, in the absence of any possibility of direct evidence), that pointing by humans is psychologically distinct from and more cognitively complex than the pointing of apes. It is commonplace in the contemporary literature to appeal to imaginary, species‐unique causal factors to account for human pointing, rendering a large body of contemporary theoretical work untestable with scientific methods: scientific arguments require the public availability of core theoretical entities. In this paper, I will analyze the circumstances of pointing by apes and humans and develop an alternative theoretical model of pointing that does not rely upon non‐physical constructs. According to the view espoused, here, pointing develops as a solution to a particular kind of developmental problem, characterized by (a) a developing capacity for tool use, (b) barriers to direct action, and (c) a history of caregiver responsiveness. Pointing by both apes and humans is explicable without invoking imaginary, mental causes. This article is categorized under: Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition Cognitive Biology > Cognitive Development Psychology > Comparative Psychology
(a) Information‐theoretic model of signal transmission; (b) telementational model of intentional/epistemic interpretation, based on the criticism of the telementational model by Leudar and Costall (2004)
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Pathways into the Referential Problem Space. Four pathways into the Referential Problem Space. Apes and humans display tool‐using competencies by the end of the first year of life. Humans (top pathway) are motorically slow to develop throughout infancy and subjected to culturally specific patterns of restraint. In these conditions of endogenous and exogenous constraint, children apply their developing tool‐using skills to the manipulation of their caregivers, including the use of pointing. In contrast, great apes in the wild (bottom pathway) develop locomotor independence much earlier, before the onset of tool‐using competency, and therefore almost never encounter a situation in which they can only access some entity with the help of another agent. Captive apes (middle two pathways), by virtue of their ubiquitous containment by cash mesh and cage bars, are placed into the Referential Problem Space, and in this ecological context, pointing emerges
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Psychology > Comparative Psychology
Cognitive Biology > Cognitive Development
Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition

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