Starting from Scratch

The Origin and Development of Expression, Representation and Symbolism in Human and Non-Human Primates

By John Matthews

© 2011 – Psychology Press

392 pages | 14 B/W Illus.

Purchasing Options:
Paperback: 9781138877610
pub: 2015-05-21
US Dollars$49.95
Hardback: 9781841696898
pub: 2010-10-21
US Dollars$90.00

e–Inspection Copy

About the Book

This book compares the beginning of symbolic thought in human infancy with that of our close primate relatives, the chimpanzees. The author investigates the precursors of symbolism by studying the actions and interactions of a small group of these intelligent, non-human primates who live in Singapore Zoo.

Drawing upon his years of detailed observations, Matthews offers an in-depth analysis and interpretation of chimp behaviour to present an unprecedented account of the beginnings of symbolic thought. The book shows that the actions the chimpanzees perform have structural and semantic similarities with the actions of emergent expression and representation we find in human infancy. Of great importance is the finding that chimpanzee mark-making activity is not an artefact of human interference, but part of chimpanzee culture. Young chimpanzees seem to be introduced to acts of pretence and imagination by older and more experienced ones and taught the rudiments of expression, representation and symbolism.

The implications for our understanding of symbolism, language, art and education are enormous, as are those about our origins and our place within nature. The book is written in an accessible style for both specialist and non-specialist readers, and illustrated with the author’s drawings and photographs.


"This book’s value … lies in the author’s ability to provide a starting point for provocative thinking about how expressions, representation, and symbolism may have emerged in humans and non-human primates in relation to artistic development." - Michael J. Beran and Lisa A. Heimbauer, Georgia State University Language Research Center, USA, in PsycCRITIQUES

"Meticulously scholarly. He shares his thought processes with the reader, explaining why he does things, how, and his observations would please Darwin, Piaget, all the greats! Each time I try to put the book down, the next section beckons and looks interesting." - Tina Bruce, Honorary Visiting Professor of Early Childhood Studies, Roehampton University, UK

"Starting from Scratch is not your typical psychology text. It combines careful observation with an interpretative lens that is seldom encountered in scientific work. Professor Matthews' work supplements and extends previous studies and provides a valuable database on chimpanzees' representational capabilities." - Kerry Lee, Associate Professor, Applied Cognitive Development Lab, National Institute of Education, Singapore

Table of Contents

Introduction. 1. Expression, Representation and Symbolism in Primates. 2. Genesis. 3. Spontaneously Generated Expressive Structure. 4. Structural Principles: Modification, Variation and Extension of First Generation Actions. 5. The Meaning of the Moving Hand. 6. Directions and Locations. 7. The End of the Line. 8. Repetition and Variation Upon a Structural Theme. 9. The Giving of Meaning. 10. Sentences in the Sky. 11. Point of Arrival and Moment of Impact. 12. Helping Hands. 13. Shape, Form and Symmetry. 14. Empathy and Imagination. 15. Dialogue. 16. Dynamic Structure. 17. Continuous Rotation. 18. In a Spin: The Development of the Rotation. 19. Bottoms-up: Script-violation. 20. Rotation Around an Axis. 21. Rhythm. 22. A New Kind of Desire. 23. Structure. 24. The Image. 25. Shapes of Things to Come. 26. The Dynamic Knot. 27. Drawing and Writing. 28. Description. 29. The Scratch. 30. Agon. 31. Dying Slave. 32. Sack-cloth and Ashes. 33. Ida Draws. Conclusion.

About the Author

John Matthews is an artist and educator. He has taught all age groups from nursery children to University level, at institutions including Goldsmiths Art School and Goldsmiths Faculty of Education at the University of London, and the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His main research area has been early symbolism in very young children; more recently he has become involved in studying the precursors of symbolic thought in non-human primates.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
PSYCHOLOGY / Developmental / Child