Re: Chimps don't talk, but they do cry

Stephen E. Jones (
Wed, 01 Sep 1999 05:39:00 +0800


Here is a New Statesman article at:

which, while it doesn't exactly say it, suggested to me that the real
difference between modern humans and animals (including hominids) is
that humans alone can speak a true language:

"Animals seem, in short, to be doing precisely the thing that Chomsky said
humans do not do: applying general cognitive skills to collections of words.
The putative language module, with syntax already built in and allowing
infinite flexibility, is lacking - one of the few human skills that really does
seem to be exclusively human. Animals cannot speak like us; it's just that
the clever ones can use other skills to produce a plausible imitation."

Glenn has assembled an impressive list of abilities of hominids. He then claims
this shows that hominids were truly human, and even that Adam was an
Homo habilis or Australopithecine!

But it seems to me that these abilities of hominids could all be explained
as the result of "applying general cognitive skills to collections of words"
without "the...language module" that humans uniquely have "with syntax
already built in and allowing infinite flexibility".

This would dovetail with the definition of man that Christian theologians
like Erickson have proposed:

"Man is distinguished by the presence and use of complex symbolism
or, more specifically, of language. While the making of tools and
burial of the dead point to a fairly sophisticated pattern of
behavior, it is language which makes possible the type of
relationship with God which would be experienced by a being created
in the image of God." (Erickson M.J., "Christian Theology, 1985,


New Statesman

2 August 1999


Chimps don't talk, but they do cry

Ignore the reports about chattering bonobos; language remains unique to
humans. But animals can think and feel, writes Colin Tudge

Bonobos - or "pygmy chimpanzees" - can, in effect, talk, with a little help
from a computerised synthesiser, or so at least say Sue Savage-Rumbaugh
and her husband, Duane Rumbaugh, of Georgia State University, Atlanta;
but although this claim is intriguing, it is not as exciting as the newspapers
have been making out, and the discussion on animal rights that has
inevitably ensued has been merely irritating. In a nutshell: there is as yet no
good evidence that the bonobos' apparent linguistic skill is qualitatively the
same as ours; and the matter of their rights is not affected, whether they
can speak or not.

Chimpanzees cannot talk, not least because their larynx - as in all other
mammals except us - is high in the throat and serves as a valve to stop
water running down their windpipes as they drink. Only humans have a
larynx slung low, where it can resonate (the voice box), to produce
something more than a grunt or a miaow. So those who have investigated
the putative linguistic skills of chimps, beginning with Robert Yerkes in the
United States in the 1920s, have typically tried to teach them American
sign language.

The results have often been impressive. In particular, in the late 1970s,
Allen and Beatrix Gardner claimed that their protege Washoe knew more
than 100 signs and could string them together into simple sentences. Here,
surely, was primordial language skill. Yet Herbert Terrace, of Columbia
University, New York, an erstwhile supporter of the Gardners, now says
that Washoe and her fellow linguists merely picked up cues from their
investigators, like clever Hans, the famous counting horse.

But there is a more fundamental issue, first articulated properly by Noam
Chomsky, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the 1960s. B F
Skinner, who carried the behaviourist flag through the middle decades of
this century, argued that people learn language in much the same way that
circus elephants learn to pirouette: they associate particular sounds with
particular circumstances and are rewarded when they get the connection
right. Language, in short, is simply a special application of general mental

But this "model", said Chomsky, does not fit the facts. Children learn their
own languages within a few years - Cantonese, Geordie or Morningside, it
makes no difference - at a time when their general cognitive skills are
primitive; they cannot learn arithmetic, for example, at that stage of life.
They learn the local language, furthermore, with minimal cues: from almost
random sentences coming from all angles, they infer the extraordinarily
subtle underlying rules imperatives, subjunctives, the whole shooting

Although these rules are not made explicit until secondary school, when
children already speak perfectly, by the time children do learn to think
clearly, they also lose the ability to pick up new languages. So language,
said Chomsky, cannot simply be a subset of general learning. Children must
be born with a customised "language module" in their brains in which rules
of grammar are already embedded and into which vocabulary is slotted.
Further, all the many thousands of human languages in the end prove to
have a similar "deep structure" - subject, object, verb, conditional clauses;
this grammar is universal.

Many, since, have offered elaborations. Terence Deacon, in his admirable
The Symbolic Species, suggested that languages and brains have
coevolved, with the languages self-selected for user-friendliness. Chomsky
himself refuses to acknowledge that his putative language module could
have evolved at all by Darwinian means, though many feel that this position
is downright perverse. All in all, though, Chomsky's view holds the day:
language skill, whatever it is, seems to be special. It must have evolved
(pace Chomsky) by borrowing pre-existing, more primitive skills. But
human beings don't and can't learn language simply by applying a general
ability to think to the particularities of words.

Many animals produce sounds of their own that symbolise aspects of the
world at large and are effectively "words". They may learn human words,
too. The mahouts of Asia expect their elephants to learn scores of
commands in the course of their working lives. The Rumbaughs' star
bonobo, Panbanisha, apparently knows thousands of words. Clever
animals, such as bonobos, can join words together, apparently expressing
novel thoughts. But virtually everything that animals do in the way of
language can be explained in behaviourist terms. They learn to associate
sounds or signs with objects and actions, just as a dog associates the rattle
of the lead with walkies; and some, such as the Gardners' chimp Washoe,
will shuffle combinations of signs until they receive the required reward, as
in "drink, fruit, want" - which looks like a sentence of a kind.

Animals seem, in short, to be doing precisely the thing that Chomsky said
humans do not do: applying general cognitive skills to collections of words.
The putative language module, with syntax already built in and allowing
infinite flexibility, is lacking - one of the few human skills that really does
seem to be exclusively human. Animals cannot speak like us; it's just that
the clever ones can use other skills to produce a plausible imitation.

Such ingenuity is impressive, however, even if it is not true language; and
this raises another issue. Rene Descartes proposed in the 17th century that
thinking depends on words, and since animals don't verbalise, they can't
think. Philosophers, scientists and slaughtermen went on believing him for
the next 300 years, vindicating appalling cruelties by impeccable Gallic

Science needs measurement, and since we cannot measure the thoughts of
animals - if they have any - we must be content to measure their behaviour.
So the behaviourists set out to explain what animals do, treating them as if
they were simply automata with not a thought in their heads.

Not till the 1980s was it finally proved beyond doubt that although a
clockwork toy may emulate a worm or do a fair imitation of an ant, it could
never match a pig or a chimpanzee. Such creatures really do work things
out and make decisions, guided by their emotions, just as David Hume
suggested we do. The much-despised anthropomorphism could thus give
deeper insight than the apparent rigours of behaviourism. The task, as
Terrace said, circa 1984, "is to explain how animals think without human

Today serious biologists have growing respect for the thoughts and
emotional depths of animals. At the very least, the Atlantan bonobos must
reinforce this respect. To some, too, including me, it has long been self-
evident that we should afford "rights" to animals. Each individual agrees to
take seriously the things that are important to other individuals, and
"rights" is a shorthand way of expressing this general principle.

Some moral philosophers suggest that there can be no rights without
responsibilities; but such conditional clauses are purely arbitrary - written in
to enable philosophers to put their cats out at night with a clear conscience.
We should be prepared to afford "rights" to others without any quid pro
quo. We should be good to chimpanzees not because they might resemble
us but simply because they are chimpanzees and, as such, like dogs or pigs
or anything else that breathes and is aware, should be deemed worthy of

Colin Tudge is a research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy at the
London School of Economics

"...we have proffered a collective tacit acceptance of the story of gradual
adaptive change, a story that strengthened and became even more
entrenched as the synthesis took hold. We paleontologists have said that
the history of life supports that interpretation, all the while really knowing
that it does not." (Eldredge N., "Time Frames: The Rethinking of
Darwinian Evolution and the Theory of Punctuated Equilibria", Simon &
Schuster: New York NY, 1985, p144).
Stephen E. Jones | |