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Anim Cogn. 2006 Apr;9(2):81-93. Epub 2005 Oct 19.

A comparative analysis of animals' understanding of the human pointing gesture.

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Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Pázmany P 1/c, H-1117, Budapest, Hungary.


We review studies demonstrating the ability of some animals to understand the human pointing gesture. We present a 3-step analysis of the topic. (1) We compare and evaluate current experimental methods (2) We compare available experimental results on performance of different species and investigate the interaction of species differences and other independent variables (3) We evaluate how our present understanding of pointing comprehension answers questions about function, evolution and mechanisms. Recently, a number of different hypotheses have been put forward to account for the presence of this ability in some species and for the lack of such comprehension in others. In our view, there is no convincing evidence for the assumption that the competitive lifestyles of apes would inhibit the utilization of this human gesture. Similarly, domestication as a special evolutionary factor in the case of some species falls short in explaining high levels of pointing comprehension in some non-domestic species. We also disagree with the simplistic view of describing the phenomenon as a simple form of conditioning. We suggest that a more systematic comparative research is needed to understand the emerging communicative representational abilities in animals that provide the background for comprehending the human pointing gesture.

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