Darwin’s hug: Ideologies of gesture in the science of human exceptionalism

Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall


This article reviews accounts of “hugging” across evolutionary paradigms to expose how understandings of gesture are shaped by scientific theorizations of the ways humans and animals differ. The divergent roles assigned to gesture in human communication by Vygotskian and Chomskyan researchers can be traced to research on human exceptionalism during key historical periods in the Soviet Union and United States. When Vygotsky introduced his sociocultural theory of cognitive development during the early Soviet period, human exceptionalism was tested through reproductive crossbreeding. When Chomsky hypothesized a language acquisition device for the human brain during the Civil Rights era, human exceptionalism was tested through interspecies communication. These scientific histories inspired critically different approaches to gestural meaning. Taking a fresh look at the great ape language debates of the 1970s, the article attributes the dismissal of ethnography in late twentieth-century human language study to a developing experimental protocol that required gesture’s eviction.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/715754