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Challenging Chompsky
August 20, 2011 2:30 PM   Subscribe

In the late Sixties and early Seventies several experiments were begun to test whether or not a non-human primate could construct a sentence. Several species were involved in these various experiments including the chimpanzees Washoe and Nim, a gorilla named Koko, and later in the Eighties work began with a bonobo named Kanzi. While great progress was made in teaching these primates a vocabulary, it would be difficult to see any of these experiments as a success. And all of these projects raised important questions about the ethics of such experiments.

The first related experiment occurred in 1932 when Luella and Winthrop Kellogg brought a one-year-old chimpanzee named Gua into their homes and began to raise her along side their 16-month-old son Donald. After two years the experiment ended and Gua was returned to the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. In less than a year after being separated from her human stepbrother, Gua died of pneumonia. Kellogg cited concern over his son's regressed development and his mimicry of chimp behavior as reasons for ending the experiment. Donald would later commit suicide in 1972.

Three decades later, after some early language experiments using magnetic symbols and metal boards, and a few less than successful attempts at training chimpanzees to vocalize words, researchers began to try using American Sign Language to teach non-human primates a vocabulary. Again young non-human primates were raised in human homes, often alongside human children, in an attempt to teach them language.

The first such project involved a chimpanzee named Washoe, raised with researchers Beatrix and Allen Gardner's family. Washoe was exposed to only ASL as an infant and learned approximately 350 signs. Eventually Washoe moved to Central Washington University where she died in 2007. She was 42.

From Teaching Sign Language to the Chimpanzee R.A. Gardner & B.T. Gardner

Sign Langauge and Washoe - the beginning.

Washoe uses novel word combinations with syntax.

Washoe, age 4.

From: Washoe: Apes and Sign Language by R.A. Gardner & B.T. Gardner
Washoe and the Family Teach Loulis to Use Sign Language.

Following Washoe was Nim, in an experiment conducted by Columbia Psychologist Herbert Terrace. Nim was first raised with Stephanie LaFarge's family, but eventually became too aggressive to stay. He later worked with Laura-Ann Petitto and Bob Ingersoll. In 1979, Terrace and Petitto co-authored a paper declaring the experiment a failure, citing the Clever Hans effect for what appeared to be language acquisition in Nim. Nim's vocabulary had expanded to 125 signs by the time the project ended. Eventually Columbia sold Nim to a medical experimentation lab, but a public outcry about the sale resulted in Nim's eventual placement at author Cleveland Amory's animal rescue preserve, Black Beauty Ranch. Nim died there on March 10th, 2000, at the age of 26.

Earlier this year a documentary titled Project Nim based on Elizabeth Hess's book*, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, was released.

The 1989 movie Animal Behavior is a fictionalized story loosely based on Nim and Petitto.

Fresh Air devoted an entire episode to the documentary.

Meanwhile, Francince "Penny" Patterson was beginning to work with a young gorilla named Koko. According to Penny Patterson, Koko is able to understand more than 1,000 signs based on ASL. Koko is also known for a book about her and her pet kitten which she named All Ball. Koko has lived and worked with Penny Patterson for almost her entire life. Koko recently celebrated her 40th birthday with Patterson at their home in California. In 1978 Koko was also the subject of a documentary titled Koko: A Talking Gorilla (parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8)

Susan Savage-Rumbaugh* took a slightly different approach in attempting to teach language to bonobos. Rather than using sign language, Savage-Rumbaugh did some early work using lexigrams, symbols that represent words, but which do not look like the things they represent. Her work with Kanzi has been the most successful. Kanzi understands over 200 lexigrams and can point to them when hearing them spoken in English. He also seems to have picked up a little ASL that he may have learned from watching video tapes of Koko. In 1993, Japan's NHK made a documentary about Kanzi called Kanzi - An Ape of Genius (parts 2, 3 and 4). Kanzi continues to work with Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh at Georgia State University's Language Research Center.
posted by Toekneesan (39 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh my god, why didn't you go with "Challenging Chimpsky"? Just kidding...Excellent post!
posted by Renoroc at 2:54 PM on August 20, 2011


This is a phenomenal post, congrats.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 2:58 PM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Who's Chompsky?
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:24 PM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh my god, why didn't you go with "Challenging Chimpsky"? Just kidding...Excellent post!

Actually, I think Nim's full name was Nim Chimpsky, because the researchers wanted to "make a chimp out of Chomsky."
posted by jonp72 at 3:25 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Who's Chompsky?

Dang it. Proof that even some human primates can't construct a sentence.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:27 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've said it before and I'll say it again, Kanzi got mad skills on the mic.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 3:39 PM on August 20, 2011


Penny Patterson is 64, and Koko is 40. I wonder if Dr Patterson knew she would be caring for Koko for virtually her entire adult life when the project started. Does she have regrets? Did she ever want a (human) child of her own?

It's not outside the realm of possibility that Dr Patterson's life will end before Koko's does. What happens then? Not just to the care of Koko, which I assume they have sorted out, but to Koko herself? Will she be able to cope with the loss of the person who is, in essence, her mother?
posted by anastasiav at 3:40 PM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dang it. Proof that even some human primates can't construct a sentence.

Hey, at least it had syntax, right?
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:43 PM on August 20, 2011


Fantastic post, really well done. This is practically a teaching resource. Thank you.

The anthropomorphic dream will die hard, and always return. All of this was so misguided, and so partial in its views of both what language is and what non-human animals are.
posted by spitbull at 3:44 PM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


A rare chance to see a depiction of the actual emergence of language in a new primate species in real time.

On a more serious note, here's Geoff Pullum on Project Nim.
posted by timelord at 4:24 PM on August 20, 2011


The anthropomorphic dream will die hard, and always return. All of this was so misguided, and so partial in its views of both what language is and what non-human animals are.

What a cogent observation! I disagree somewhat from its first part. I think discovering whether or not non-humans have language skills is not the same as presuming animals are like humans reflexively, as we see all the time, whether in cartoons or in our own thinking. But scientists have legitimate reasons to suspect that other animals can communicate in ways approaching our level of sophistication. Unfortunately, there is a thick gray line between intraspecies communication and language skills. Misguided: in some of these cases maybe yes, in others probably not. Understanding the intent of others is a tricky business, but is also part of what defines intelligent species. But, that's another can of worms.

Next up: do animals have souls?!
posted by kozad at 4:32 PM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Agreed, excellent post. My favourite Koko story:

Koko the gorilla is famous for mastering more than 1,000 signs based on American Sign Language, which she uses to communicate with Stanford researchers.

That’s not all she’s learned from humans. One day her attendants discovered that a steel sink in her enclosure had been torn from its moorings. When they confronted her, she pointed to her pet kitten.

“Cat did it,” she signed.

posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:49 PM on August 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Next up: do animals have souls?! I don't know, but does emotion count?

That's Micheal a silver back who was taught ASL by Koko, signing about the death of his mother. (Forgive me if I'm repeating anything posted above.)
posted by snsranch at 4:54 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I actually just returned from watching Project Nim, and I highly recommend it. The film spends fairly little time on the question of whether Nim succeeded or failed at acquiring human language (in fact, at no point is it even mentioned that he was named after Noam Chomsky), and has a few cinematic flourishes that seemed silly and overdone to me. But it is nonetheless a really engaging and occasionally heartbreaking story about the people involved with Nim and all the crazy twists and turns in his life.
posted by bookish at 4:56 PM on August 20, 2011


I recently saw a trailer for a documentary called Zookeeper about a gorilla who could form sentences, mostly about Applebees.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:00 PM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


do animals have souls?!

Do people have souls? Are we really self-aware or do our brains create justification for what largely are pre-programmed responses to stimuli creating the illusion of free-will?
posted by Poet_Lariat at 5:06 PM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Only one thing needs updating in this post. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh left GSU 6 years ago and moved to continue her work at Great Ape Trust of Iowa. She has since assumed some sort of emeritus status at that institution. The primatological language research continues in the GSU lab, although they now work with chimps, as well as rhesus and capuchin monkeys, but no bonobos.
posted by MultiplyDrafted at 5:08 PM on August 20, 2011


Do people have souls? Are we really self-aware or do our brains create justification for what largely are pre-programmed responses to stimuli creating the illusion of free-will?

I'm going to exercise my free will and command w this thread right... now.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:23 PM on August 20, 2011


All of this was so misguided, and so partial in its views of both what language is and what non-human animals are.

"If a lion could talk, we could not understand him." -Wittgenstein

Great post!
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:40 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw a lot of film about Washoe back in the day, and I remain unconvinced. They did an experiment where they showed Washoe pictures, and then asked her to sign what she saw. The problem was that the people interpreting the signs knew what she had seen.

I would have taken the experiment a lot more serious if those interpreting her response hadn't known what she was reacting to. And it seemed to me that there was a serious lack of scientific rigor in most of how that project was run. ("Clever Hans" is definitely the kind of thing I saw happening. The chimps kind of twisted their hands, and the researchers saw what they wanted to see.)

The Koko project was the same way. In fact, all the ones which tried using ASL seemed to be like that. The researchers seemed dedicated to proving that they were right -- and not so much to trying to find out if they were right.

On the other hand, I've also seen film of a project that was done with Bonobos. Instead of trying to use ASL, the researcher created a synthetic language which was expressed by pointing to symbols on a board. The syntax of the language was straightforward and the vocabulary carefully chosen. I watched the bonobos using that board to communicate with the researcher, and to each other, and I believe they were genuinely communicating. It wasn't the "Clever Hans" effect.

I also believe that the researcher in that case had a proper skeptical attitude about his own work, the right kind of scientific detachment.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:54 PM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


do animals have souls?!

Until you can come up with a rigorous description of what a "soul" is, and show how you can detect the presence or absence of a soul, then the question is not one which is amenable to scientific investigation.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:56 PM on August 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


I worked at the South Reno facility where Washoe and a couple of other chimps were housed. I was going to UNR and I got a job as a "handyman/assistant" at the compound. One memorable day I "met" the chimps. Meaning I was working in the yard and the chimps happened by on their daily walk. Although I remember the big chimp at the facility at the time was Moja, there were a couple of other smaller chimps too. One of the smaller chimps ran over to me and jumped up and held loosely around my neck and luckily I divined that I was supposed to hold him up. We stared inches from each other's face for a while until the other chimps moved on and he jumped down. Later I was told that the meeting had gone well, I had done fine.

This was in the fateful year 1979, when Washoe's son died. The Gardner's were pretty devastated and the work around the facility suffered, which is why I think I may have been hired. The university crew working there were affected as well and I remember a lot of emotional turmoil evident at times. After a few months I moved on, but never forgot my time at the Chimp Ranch.
posted by telstar at 6:25 PM on August 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


That’s not all she’s learned from humans. One day her attendants discovered that a steel sink in her enclosure had been torn from its moorings. When they confronted her, she pointed to her pet kitten.

“Cat did it,” she signed.


Does anyone know if this story is true? I see it repeated frequently, but never with a source.
posted by pseudonick at 6:35 PM on August 20, 2011


Maybe this was the problem with the research.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:55 PM on August 20, 2011


Animals don't need human influence to learn how to lie. They do so in nature.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:19 PM on August 20, 2011


The anthropomorphic dream will die hard, and always return. All of this was so misguided, and so partial in its views of both what language is and what non-human animals are.
What is this crap? Why is it a dream and why is it misguided? There is no scientifically valid reason to believe that humans are somehow fundamentally 'different' from other animals then there is in believing earth is the center of the universe.

Certainly, there are some differences. humans are better at language the same way chimps (and many other animals) are stronger. Humans evolved brain structures specifically for language, but interestingly some of those same structures show up in songbirds as well.

It's also kind of annoying to read a post that basically says "all these scientists were, for decades, wrong. I'm not even going to bother to say why since it's so obvious". You say the view was "partial" but you don't even bother to say what "parts" were missing.

The view that humans are 'fundamentally' different from other animals is really borderline religious. People mentioned 'souls' and that's about it. There's never any justification given for why animals can't really communicate, or whatever.
posted by delmoi at 9:11 PM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Awesome post, Toekneesan. Looking forward to digging into these links. I was trained in a pretty conservatively Chomskyan linguistics department, so this work was always somewhat...deemphasized. As I understand it, the primates approach very basic SVO syntax, however the hope of witnessing recursive structure -- the cornerstone of human linguistic systems -- has mostly been dashed. There's been lots of debate over the structure of birdsong, however, over on Language Log and other nerdy linguistics forums.
posted by stroke_count at 9:12 PM on August 20, 2011


I would have taken the experiment a lot more serious if those interpreting her response hadn't known what she was reacting to. And it seemed to me that there was a serious lack of scientific rigor in most of how that project was run. ("Clever Hans" is definitely the kind of thing I saw happening. The chimps kind of twisted their hands, and the researchers saw what they wanted to see.)

Watch the Kanzi video. You can see they sometimes put on a welders mask when giving her commands to prevent that kind of thing.
posted by delmoi at 9:14 PM on August 20, 2011


What is this crap? Why is it a dream and why is it misguided? There is no scientifically valid reason to believe that humans are somehow fundamentally 'different' from other animals then there is in believing earth is the center of the universe.


"Crap?" How rude.

I happen to be a linguist. And you happen to fundamentally misunderstand my point.

We are different from other animals in one, specific major way: we have language (and thus culture). That's what "this crap" is.

Show me another animal species that has been able to systematically and massively manipulate its own environments, social structures, etc., on anything like the scale (or time scale) that humans have done and then get back to me.
posted by spitbull at 9:19 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Oh, and my reasons for saying we are different are indeed "scientifically valid." I'd argue they are scientifically "proven," in fact. We are still animals like any other, except that we evolved the ability to think about the distinction.)
posted by spitbull at 9:21 PM on August 20, 2011


I happen to be a linguist. And you happen to fundamentally misunderstand my point.
Well, how can anyone know what your point is when you don't even bother trying to express it?

Certainly Humans are much better at language the other Animals, but that's to a certain extent, like saying narwalls have tusks and polar bears don't. Our ability to use language, obviously has had a huge impact on our ability to complex tools. We can take one tool and refine it, and transmit ideas easily.

Finding out what kind of capabilities for language other animals have is helpful in understanding human evolution. It may be a skill that's difficult but not impossible for them to learn -- like complex math is for people. It's not something that comes naturally, you have to really work at it. But once you work at it, you can get better until it comes more easily.

But beyond that, your flippant comment didn't even give enough information about what you thought to really respond. You don't define what you mean at all. So for example:
Show me another animal species that has been able to systematically and massively manipulate its own environments, social structures, etc., on anything like the scale (or time scale) that humans have done and then get back to me.
It's not clear what this has to do with your initial comment, since you didn't define what you meant by 'anthropomorphic' or what 'partial' meant when it came to understanding what humans and animals were.
(Oh, and my reasons for saying we are different are indeed "scientifically valid." I'd argue they are scientifically "proven," in fact. We are still animals like any other, except that we evolved the ability to think about the distinction.)
Right, I said we were 'different' just not 'fundamentally different' from other animals, especially large mammals. I mean we're taller, have less hair, physically much weaker, we walk differently and our language faculties are more advanced. But the question is whether our ability to use language is small difference like the other physical differences, or if it makes us fundamentally a different type of thing.

Starting from the assumption that we are an entirely different kind of thing (as opposed to normal variation between animal species) is arrogant the same way that assuming the earth is the center of the universe is arrogant.
posted by delmoi at 9:36 PM on August 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


The "massive" and "scale" qualifiers aren't fair in this argument. Nobody is saying that humans aren't much much better with language than other animals.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:09 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Telstar, were you there when Washoe adopted Loulis? That was only a few weeks after Sequoyah's death. Were you there long enough to witness what they're describing as Washoe teaching Loulis ASL?
posted by Toekneesan at 11:26 PM on August 20, 2011


Wow. This is a really comprehensive post; great job! Can't wait to dive into all these links.

I used to work with Koko in summer of 2008. I was volunteering at The Gorilla Foundation in the hopes of being offered a job as a gorilla carer and linguistic researcher*. The whole experience was completely mind-blowing. I remember that after the first time I spoke with Koko I wandered around in a daze for a week, trying to reorganize the new information in my head and how it messed with my whole conception of what it means to be human. Just to make eye contact (after we'd met several times and had some discussions and in the right setting) or to watch the detail of her hands as she signed – too powerful to describe. I think we somehow separate the subtleties of animal behavior from our own...that we even have different senses of 'animal', used in the previous sentence to mean 'not including humans', is an interesting meta-example of that actually. The way a cat yawns, or how a dog tilts its head, or any number of things that pets and other creatures do...that we do, too. But when you see that happening alongside a message, a linguistic communication, from the same source at the same time, ahhh, it's absolutely brain boggling. You realize that the communications are there, they always were, but that the channel is simply not available to convey the message. And we can't hear.

Getting back to linguistics...there's one example that really sticks out in my mind (well, there's a lot of them really, but lest this comment get too long, this one will sum up some of the 50 other things I want to say here). Koko was given a phoneme discrimination task many years ago. I can't remember all the specific details of the task as the story was told to me, but it doesn't really matter. Basically, it was something along the lines of being told three minimal pair words like 'cat', 'bat', 'rat' and being shown cards that had drawings (some had just the words written...Koko can recognize/read basic words) of a cat, bat, rat. Koko had to point to the correct corresponding word/card after hearing it spoken.

Stop and think for a moment what this entails. First, Koko has to understand that she is being given a task, a game, if we will. That requires cooperation and motivation. She has to understand that there are rules, turns, a procedure and expected outcomes. That she is in the receiving role of that game. I could go on endlessly about just this task part. Anyways, for the actual task. Sound patterns pointing to specific things in the world? Ok, that's impressive in and of itself, when you think about it. The sound pattern [kæt] not only conjures up a mental image of a cat, but the concept of the whole category of cats, such that it is distinct from the whole category of [ræt] and [bæt]. But these categories have properties. 'cat' and 'rat' are different from 'bat' and Koko understands why. Back to the task...what blows my mind here is that Koko gets that the sound pattern of cat is related to the piece of rectangular paper in front of her containing a representation of a cat...in the form of a written word, which is another representation! Do you see how many levels removed this is from an actual cat? And don't even get me started on the pointing. Or the fact that she can group the spoken word, the card, the drawing, the written word and the concept together, but separate the idea that the phonemes [k], [æ] and [t] can be assigned to several other words, some of them sounding like 'cat', but having nothing to do with cats at all!

Granted, she is not perfect at this task, but she is statistically significantly above chance here. That she can sit at a table and do this is a sort of proof, really. Because of all of the things that being present at the task entails. And there are countless other examples in the day to day as well. She loves to negotiate, to bargain and to tease. Especially when it comes to complying to requests, answering questions and the pursuit of candy.

Here's an example of her I'm-gonna-mess-with-you-because-I-can-and-it's-fun (from a 2008 writing about the first time I met her):
We were in the sunlight again and I was facing her, about 4 feet from the fence. She began pacing back and forth. I was able to look at her. She was both bigger and smaller than I imagined. Only one inch taller than me, at five feet, but twice as heavy. And there were other more obvious differences. Before I had time to lose myself in observation, SLAM! The cage before me shook violently. Metal on metal. I was being tested. I startled, but didn't make a sound. [...]

Next, she picked up a foot-long stick from the yard. She stuck one end towards me through the hole in the fence. I asked Penny if I should reach it. She kindly told me not to reach towards the gorilla or touch the fence. She also told me I was being tested again; the gorillas reach was a lot longer than she was letting on. So I remained sitting quietly, seemingly uninterested.

Eventually the stick was extended to me, within my easy reach. I went to take it. Only to find that the offer was amusingly redacted. Darn. I bet I'm not the first to fall for that one.
The best part of this is that after I went for it, she took it to the next level. She stared at me, contemplated things for a full minute and then sparked up as if she had a brilliant idea. She stood up, came toward the fence again and then broke the stick in half. Now, with a much shorter piece in hand, she stuck her arm through the bars, first close to her, but slowly extending her arm and the stick toward me and eventually putting the stick within my grasp again, with her even longer reach than before.

The distance was the same as before, but the arrangement now different. She was playfully in control of it, testing my trust.

*I did get offered the job, but for various reasons I declined the position.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:34 AM on August 21, 2011 [38 favorites]


Haven't seen this linked in the thread or FPP (maybe I missed it), but Radiolab did a pretty good segment about Kanzi. Also on that page is a link to an interactive Lexigram of the sort they used with Kanzi.
posted by hippybear at 6:07 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I recall reading the article in National Geographic about Koko. The thing that for me cemented that she had acquired language was her ability to insult ("You dirty, bad toilet."). The story about lying about the sink is also in this article.
posted by plinth at 11:42 AM on August 21, 2011



That’s not all she’s learned from humans. One day her attendants discovered that a steel sink in her enclosure had been torn from its moorings. When they confronted her, she pointed to her pet kitten.

“Cat did it,” she signed.


Koko's not the only non-human primate to be caught telling lies.

We are different from other animals in one, specific major way: we have language (and thus culture).

In Shark Bay, wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) apparently use marine sponges as foraging tools. We demonstrate that genetic and ecological explanations for this behavior are inadequate; thus, “sponging” classifies as the first case of an existing material culture in a marine mammal species.

The definitions of culture and language have turned out to be pretty malleable in the human-exceptionalism camp, in a no-true-scotsman kind of way.
posted by Jakey at 3:42 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Chocolate Pickle, one of the many ways that they have done experiments with Washoe and the other chimps at the Chimpanzee Human Communication Institute is what is known as a double blind experiment. So, for example, if they wanted to test her ability to properly use sign language to refer to a given object, one research would go into a room with a divider and a one-way mirror leave an object on one side. They would leave. Washoe would go onto the side with that object and a second researcher would come in (unable to see the object) and say or sign "What is that?" A *third* recorder who could see Washoe (but not the object) would then record whatever Washoe signed. Analysis of these tests showed that Washoe performed statistically better than chance. Another book that sheds light on the research they did with Washoe, Loulis, Moja, Dar and Tatu is called Next of Kin, by Roger Fouts (who until recently ran the Chimpanzee Human Communication Institute, but just retired). I highly recommend it.

I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks volunteering at CHCI when I was a high school student who knew she was going to grow up to be a primatologist. While I was there, the project we were working on was looking at how the chimps were using their enclosure - so nothing dealing with sign language. What was neat was that even though we weren't directly engaging them with sign language, they were engaging eachother. So Loulis signed "Chase" to Dar and they chased eachother around the enclosure. One thing I vividly remember was Tatu flipping through some magazines, signing to herself about what she was seeing. "Car, Black, Sandwich," and so on.

I've since decided that I didn't want to work with captive primates, so I've left the ape language thing behind as I've continued studying primatology. However, the issue keeps coming up. Primatology is concerned with culture because most primatologists are part of anthropology departments and, by definition, anthropology is concerned with human culture. From a primatological perspective, culture is simply the transmission of shared, learned behavior. So, for example, one population of Japanese macaques washes their sweet potatoes in the ocean and have ever since one monkey began doing it. She's long dead, but that population still washes their sweet potatoes. When a particular population of chimpanzees wants to initiate grooming, they hold their hands high up above their hands and clasp them while grooming. This began with a single chimp and has since passed through the whole community. It has no adaptive benefit, it's not genetic or related to anything ecological. It's just the way people groom eachother in this community. Like shaking hands is the greeting convention in the United States but potentially very rude in other places.

No one is arguing that non-human primates are cultural in the same way humans are cultural. Human culture is orders of magnitudes away from sweet potato washing by Japanese macaques, and I promise you that nearly any primatologist will tell you that. But what primatology brings to anthropology (and specifically to the question of culture) is the ability to look at humans in a cross-species perspective. Just like cultural anthropologists put human populations in a cross-cultural context ("Hey, look! In many cultures, mother-in-laws customarily have joking relationships with their sons-in-law!"), primatologists put human behavior in a cross-species context ("Wow, human babies are unusually helpless for a very long period of time compared to other great ape babies!"). You can see that something as complex and amazing as human culture could have very unassuming beginnings, evolutionarily. It is, evolutionarily, not an insurmountable leap to get from from "Wow, these sweet potatoes taste better if they've been washed in the ocean than if they're covered in sand" to the vast array of complex human behavior with infinite variations.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:46 PM on August 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


Oh, and as far as language goes - there are clear examples of the backbone of language across the primate order, which indicates that our linguistic capability has a deep evolutionary heritage. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Thomas Struhsaker did his dissertation work on vervet monkeys. Vervets are semi-terrestrial monkeys that live all across Africa, frequently in sort of marginal monkey habitat - savannah, scrubby wooded areas, cities. During his year of fieldwork, Struhsaker took 64 hours of recordings of vervet vocalizations. After analyzing these, he suggested that vervet monkeys make acoustically different alarm calls for different predators since each alarm call seemed to elicit a reaction specific to evading a particular predator (for example, if somebody called "leopard", the whole group climbed a tree whereas if someone called "eagle," everyone dove for cover on the ground”) He quantified these differences with spectrogram analyses, visual representations of calls which allow statistical analyses of the structure and form. So he could see that there was a statistically significant difference between the calls which elicited various responses, suggesting that monkey calls had some semblance of semantics, the ability to use a symbol to refer to an object.

This sort of sat on the shelf for a little while as people were dealing with ape language, but then in the mid-70s, some primatologists and Struhsaker's adviser (who specialized in bird calls) went back to Amboseli to do further research. They performed a number of playback experiments to assess the ability of primates to use semantic communication in a natural environment rather than a lab, and found that vervets were preyed upon by baboons, eagles, pythons, and leopards and had distinctive alarm calls for each category. They played these alarm calls to groups of vervets, and the monkeys responded "appropriately" by fleeing from the hypothetical predator in the correct way.

So this set off a whole field of primate cognition and communication in the field, outside of laboratories in natural settings where the language capabilities being tested were directly related to evolutionarily meaningful tasks. The research being done here has shown that monkeys produce distinct calls in response to functionally significant contexts. Listeners – even of other species – respond appropriately to calls without requiring any other contextual information because of the information contained in each call. Monkeys do not appear to create new sounds for new situations, but they've shown that putty-nosed guenons combine calls to embed more information in novel ways. Calling seems to be voluntary, but actors do not seem to take into account what other individuals believe, want, or need to know. Instead, they call at a given stimulus regardless of who else can see the stimulus or what they are alarming.

This is all interesting to me because the monkeys about whom I am writing my master's thesis also make functionally different calls for different predators, and they are preferentially associated with by most of the other monkeys in the forest because they're generally better at spotting predators. I'm interested in how diet, behavior, and anti-predator behaviors intersect and inform each other, and you can imagine that if there are lots of other monkeys following you around, that would have some effect on what you can eat and when, but also on how much danger you are in of being eaten.


There's some really amazing work being done on primate cognition and language and the evolutionary origins of human intelligence and it's both egotistical and seriously limiting to put ourselves on a pedestal. If we convince ourselves that human abilities are too special for something like the ape language experiments or studies of referential calls in diana monkeys to have any relevance, we lose so much depth and richness from our understanding of ourselves. I don't understand why granting that other primates (and animals in general) are intelligent, incredible, potentially even cultural beings takes away from human achievements. To the contrary, I think that it shows just how amazing evolution and nature are - that we've taken these basic building blocks and exploded them into what Homo sapiens is today.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:15 PM on August 21, 2011 [9 favorites]


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