RE: Talking apes

Sweitzer, Dennis (
Wed, 08 May 96 10:30:00 EST

Alfred wrote>>>>>>>
>>There are a couple of things that have come up in other places that I
wish to comment on: (1) Is Dick Fischer a talking ape?, (2) Are
Koko, Washoe, et al talking apes?

>>The short answer is no and no.

>>Taxonomy is at best, ie when living forms are being observed and
classified, a black art. Ultimately all classification is arbitrary
......distant relationship. No member of H. sapiens can be legitimately
called a P. troglodytes (or vice versa) - except, obviously, in the
pejorative sense.

I'd like to make a couple of comments ;-^)

First, I have never met Dick Fischer and am unaware of what he looks like,
or how he talks. Based on my experience, it is theoretically possible that
he is a TYPING ape (or prehaps a collaborative effort of multiple
P.troglodytes) that has given up on Shakespear. No matter which species he
belongs to, he is a credit to his species.

Second, we have to becareful distinguishing narrow technical definitions and
looser common definitions. While no H. sapiens can be legitimately called a
P. troglodytes, neither can Canis Domesticus be called a Canis Lupus (pardon
my latin, or lack thereof). Yet the domestic dog & the wild wolf are close
enough as to be able to interbreed--making the distinction somewhat
artificial (based on the tradition definition of species in terms of

Narrow technical definitions are usefull in making possible precise
communication. But they imply that the subject is structured to match the
definitions. Things of interest that don't match the conventional
theory--don't fit the technical definitions--may be discarded because they
simply don't fit, not because they are not real. The theory and the
definitions establish the paradigm, which is generally useful, but
occassionally must be shifted.

>>Now, the apes being taught ASL (or other manual based language systems
like Yerkish) - no linguist has ever claimed that what the apes are doing
even close to language use. Most of the positive statements are by the
trainers - who need to get a grant renewed. See the report on Nim chimpsky.

I'm sure the trainers, who aren't trained linguists, exagerate the language
skills of their subjects. But as surely as one can argue that the trainers
are inflating their results to get a grant renewal, one can argue that the
linguists are protecting their turf by focusing on their paradigm of
language--which is strictly defined in a human context. I cannot address
the controversy directly, so must be vague on this specific research.

While the signing apes are not using language in a human manner, they are
communicating. They certainly don't use language in a manner that meets the
strict criteria of language as defined by the professional linguists. The
real question is not whether they're using language, it is where along the
conceptional spectrum between human language and simple signaling that their
communication falls.

It's sort of like the man who sees his friend's dog using his computer. He
says, "Wow, that's great". His friend says, "Not really. His spelling is
terrible". What's significant is not how bad the dog's computer skills are,
is that the dog is using the computer at all. Likewise with ape language.
They'll never do shakespeare (Note to Dick Fisher: if you really want to
try Shakespear, please do, but we really like your work on the Flood &
Origens), but they seem to be doing more than previously thought possible.

>>Aside from musculo-skeletal morphology, the only similarity between
chimps and humans is biochemical - DNA specifically. While the degree
of identity is certainly surprising, recognizing that all (?) genes are
and all aspects of phenotype are polygenic must compromise any attempt
to argue for close affinity.

Closeness is a matter of degree. At a species level (i.e., non-cultural,
non-behaviour, and non-spiritual), what other criteria of closeness is there
besides musculo-skeletal morphology, biochemical aspects, and DNA? I can't
think of anything, but I'm just a mathematician, not a biologist. Compared
to a slug, Bobo the chimp and I are like brothers. Compared to Dick Fisher,
Bobo & I are vastly different (at least, according to people who like me).

Just striking sparks ( "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens
another..."). :-)

Grace & peace,

Dennis Sweitzer