Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins

Marc D. Hauser, Daniel Weiss, Gary Marcus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous work suggests that human infants are capable of rapidly generalizing patterns that have been characterized as abstract algebraic rules (Science 283 (1999) 77), a process that may play a pivotal role in language acquisition. Here we explore whether this capacity is uniquely human and evolved specifically for the computational problems associated with language, or whether this mechanism is shared with other species, and therefore evolved for problems other than language. We used the same materials and methods that were originally employed in tests of human infants to assess whether cotton-top tamarin monkeys can extract abstract algebraic rules. Specifically, we habituated subjects to sequences of consonant-vowel syllables that followed one of two patterns, AAB (e.g. wi wi di) or ABB (le we we). Following habituation, we presented subjects with two novel test items, one with the same pattern as that presented during habituation and one with a different pattern. Like human infants, tamarins were more likely to dishabituate to the test item with a different pattern. We conclude that the capacity to generalize rule-like patterns, at least at the level demonstrated, did not evolve specifically for language acquisition, though it remains possible that infants might use such rules during language acquisition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)B15-B22
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 2002


  • Algebraic rules
  • Comparative method
  • Language acquisition
  • Language evolution
  • Monkeys

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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