What was this evolutionist thinking when he proposed that human language evolved out of the lip smacking and buzzing sounds made by monkeys?

W. Tecumseh Fitch didn’t get any ridicule at all on Science Daily for proposing that “Monkey Lip Smacks Provide New Insights Into the Evolution of Human Speech.”  Nor did he from PhysOrg, which dutifully reprinted the press release from University of Vienna that stated, “Intriguingly, chimpanzees also make communicative sounds with their lips, including both loud lip smacks and lip buzzes (‘raspberries’).”  The monkey on Fitch’s shoulder in the accompanying photo appears to be knocking on his master’s head, wondering, “Anybody home?”

Fitch’s theory is not a hoot, the press release assures us.  “Scientists have traditionally sought the evolutionary origins of human speech in primate vocalizations, such as monkey coos or chimpanzee hoots,” the article stated without describing whose tradition deserved respect.  “But unlike these primate calls, human speech is produced using rapid, controlled movements of the tongue, lips and jaw.”  Fitch did his grunt work using cineradiography to analyze the lip-smacking behavior of macaques.  He found that the lips move faster than they do when monkeys howl.  He did not explain, though, how non-vocal lip movements could be a precursor of language, since monkeys are still smacking and buzzing raspberries without having evolved more advanced oratory, despite having millions of years more time to evolve than their upright primate brethren presumably had.  Didn’t they at least evolve envy?

In his paper published by Current Biology (31 May 2012, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.04.055) with three colleagues, Fitch recognized his hunch has some missing links:

Yet, there are striking differences between the two modes of expression, the most obvious of which is that lip-smacking lacks a vocal component (though a quiet consonant-like bilabial plosive or /p/ sound is produced when the lips smack together). Thus, the capacity to produce vocalizations during rhythmic vocal tract movements seen in speech seems to be a human adaptation. How can lip-smacking be related to speech if there is no vocal component? … Our data only address the evolution of vocal tract movements (the filter component) involved in speech production….

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