The Talking Ape
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12-11-2013, 09:05 AM
RE: The Talking Ape
(12-11-2013 04:36 AM)Free Thought Wrote:  
(11-11-2013 10:21 PM)ghostexorcist Wrote:  I recently wrote this paper for my class on the evolution of human behavior...
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The Talking Ape: Gestural and Symbolic Communication in Living
Apes and the Connection to Human Language Evolution

By Jim R. McClanahan

Philosophers from centuries passed once placed humans above animals on a hierarchical scale known as the “Great Chain of Being” (scala naturae). This chain positioned the Judeo-Christian God and his heavenly retinue at the top and minerals at the very bottom. Man occupied a spot just below angels, but above animals, due to his capacity for spirituality, reason, and language. The latter was thought to be an “unbridgeable divide” that separated man from beast.[1] However, the adoption of the aforementioned scale by science in the 18th-century—culminating in Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomic work Systema natura in 1737—led to new insights. For instance, pre-Darwinian thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1753) and James Burnett (1770) not only believed that man and the great apes were part of the same species, but that language was “an art which one variety of this species…gradually developed.”[2] With the publishing of On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin provided a mechanism, Natural selection, to explain the evolutionary link between man and ape (this connection has since then been strengthened through subsequent fossil, molecular, and behavioral studies). So if man slowly developed from an earlier protean ape ancestor, his language must have also slowly developed from an earlier predecessor. This means that living apes must also have the “genetic blueprint” for language since we share nearly 99% of our DNA.[3] In this paper I intend to explore the evidence for language in the genus Pan (chimpanzees and bonobos), a likely scenario for language evolution, and how it might have provided an advantage to our early human ancestors.

One of the earliest explorations of ape language took place in the 1940s when the psychologist Cathy Hayes attempted to cross foster Viki, a young female chimp (Pan troglodytes), in order to teach her English. The study had extremely limited success because chimps have thin tongues and their larynx is too high in their throat to produce proper sounds.[4] Viki could only say mama, papa, cup, and up while breathing out.[5] Before I continue, I must stress that language is not just confined to the verbal realm. It can also be gestured; for instance, American Sign Language (ASL) is considered a full blown language just like English. Chimps rely more on gestural communication in the wild than verbal alarm calls and pant hoots.[6] Although teaching primates signing was suggested as far back as the late 17th-century,[7] the psychologist Robert Yerkes was the first modern scholar to suggest teaching chimps signing as a valid avenue of study in 1925.[8]

The psychologists Alan and Beatrix Gardner were the first to initiate such a study in 1966 when they acquired a young female chimp, Washoe (1965-2007), to teach her ASL. She was raised as a human child and lived in an immersive ASL environment, meaning no verbal language was allowed.[9] She was initially taught how to sign by operant conditioning, molding her hands and rewarding her with food as per the protocol of B.F. Skinner’s school of animal behaviorism. However, the Gardners and their then graduate student Roger Fouts, now a professor of psychology at Central Washington University, soon discovered that she naturally learned signing just like human children learn verbal language, from daily interactions in their social environment.[10] In order for signs to be considered part of her repertoire, Washoe had to use them correctly and consecutively for 15 days.[11] Her competency was tested using a series of pictures that were projected into a cabinet that only Washoe could see. An observer wrote down any signs that she produced in response. She scored 86% in one test with 64 pictures, and she scored 71% in a later test with 128 pictures. Fouts points out that many of her mistakes were a result of bunching like items into categories and not necessarily misidentification. For instance, “[s]he would mistake [the sign of] COMB for BRUSH, or NUT for BERRIES, or DOG for COW.”[12] Another error was mistakenly using a similarly performed sign for the wrong object, such as APPLE and CAT, both of which require touching the cheek.[13] Two visiting deaf signers fluent in ASL both agreed that Washoe’s signing was consistent nearly 90% of the time.[14] It is important to note that, as Washoe progressed, her signing developed in parallel to that of a speaking human child. For instance, her two word phrases conformed to stage one of Psycholinguist Roger Brown’s three stages of language development. Her use of “longer phrases, Wh-questions, and prepositions, and other elements of grammar” conformed to the last two stages.[15] In total, Washoe learned nearly 350 signs.[16] Her ability to create novel combinations, something that linguists said was uniquely human, was best demonstrated in a series of tests gauging her response to one of her teachers “accidentally” stepping on her favorite doll. Examples of her many responses include SUSAN UP, GIMME BABY, and MINE PLEASE UP.[17] These and other combinations seemed to follow syntax 90% of the time because her subject was placed before her verbs.[18] One surprising finding of Project Washoe was that she was secretly observed to talk to herself with signing while leafing through a magazine. Fouts considers this “hand chatter” to be “the most compelling evidence that she was using language the way human children do.”[19] Even more surprising than this, Washoe actually taught her adopted son Loulis ASL starting in 1979. Apes normally learn passively in the wild, so the idea that a mother chimp not only actively taught her child but that the subject was a human language is just amazing. Louslis (b. 1978) learned his first symbol, the name of a keeper, only after living with his new mother for 8 days. He was using nearly 24 signs 18 months later.[20] Loulis is therefore “the first nonhuman to learn a human language from another nonhuman.”[21]

[Image: 7a2e.jpg]

Washoe and Dr. Roger Fouts in the 1970s.

The psychologist Herbert Terrace initiated his own project in 1973 in the hopes of proving critics of ape language studies wrong. But instead of cross fostering his chimp, Nim Chimpsky (a play on Noam Chomsky, a noted linguist), in a home environment with a small cadre of teachers, he was raised in a sterile lab environment with as many as 60 teachers. In addition, he was taught ASL via Skinnerian operant conditioning, something that the Gardners had discarded early on. This negatively affected his ability to produce spontaneous signs. Terrace later reviewed his data in 1977 and found that Nim was simply mirroring the signs that his numerous teachers performed in front of him. He took this failure to mean that all ape language studies were flawed and led a crusade against them, which was welcomed by scholars hiding behind the myth of human uniqueness. These scholars convened a conference in 1980 and damned ape language studies as a whole. The flaws in Terrace’s study were eventually brought to light, but it was already too late because such studies were already discredited in the public arena.[22]

After the fiasco involving Nim, ape sign language studies came into question and many lost funding. The psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh distinguished herself by not participating in such studies. Starting in 1973 and continuing to this day, she taught chimpanzees to communicate with a keyboard of symbols known as “Lexigrams.” The star pupil of her project is a bonobo (Pan paniscus), a close cousin of chimps and humans, named Kanzi (b. 1980). His mastery of the lexigrams—he knows nearly 350 of them[23]—meets five criteria for grammatical language use: 1) using symbols that have independent meanings, 2) combining symbols to produce meaning, 3) being able to classify words under certain categories, such as actions (verbs) and objects (nouns), 4) ordering symbols according to some rule of syntax, and 5) this rule should be dynamic, meaning that it can applied to new situations.[24] An example of criteria number 4 is the way that he learned to place actions before objects, like “bite tomato,” from watching his teachers work the lexigram board.[25] A second more shocking example is the way that he created his own action-action rule based on the order of bonobo play. For instance, the symbols “chase hide” were meant to initiate a game of hide and seek between Kanzi and someone else. This is because apes “tend to move from distal to proximal actions.”[26] In addition, Kanzi has a high level of English language comprehension, knowing nearly 3,000 English words.[27] Starting in 1988, Savage-Rumbaugh studied the comprehension of a 7-year-old Kanzi versus that of a colleague’s 2-year-old daughter. A total of 660 questions of varying complexities were asked to both subjects from behind a one-way mirror, and an observer wearing headphones to block out the questions recorded how the subjects reacted. After 9 months of study, Kanzi was found to have a better comprehension than his human counterpart; the former correctly answered 74% of the questions, while the latter correctly answered 65%.[28] In a second experiment, both subjects were read sentences containing embedded phrases—i.e. those that refer to other sections of the sentence. One example is “Get the Ball that’s in the group room” (the room references the ball) [29] Kanzi correctly answered 77% of the questions, while the 2-year-old correctly answered 52%.[30] That Kanzi can outperform a human child in comprehension tests shows that we are not as special as we think we are.

There are several theories regarding the evolution of language. Two in particle deal with the origin of grammar, the very structure of language. The first is the “language organ” theory. It posits that a chance mutation produced a new organ in the human brain that led to the spontaneous creation of language complete with grammar. There are several problems with this theory. One, despite decades of research on the subject, this mysterious organ has never been located. Two, the 7 million years that followed the split between humans and chimps would not have been enough time to evolve a new structure. As Fouts points out, “evolution was continually reorganizing what it already had—taking old structures and old circuits and putting them to use for new mental tasks.”[31] Three, not all languages have compatible grammars, meaning that the theory has to be revised each time it happens upon an incompatible language.[32] The second is the “gesture first” theory. It posits that grammar is a direct result of gestural communication. David Armstrong, William Stokoe, and Sherman Wilcox explain:


Fouts believes that this type of gesturing could have communicated plenty of information, especially when combined with facial gestures:


One often cited critique of this theory is that there is no explanation for the jump from gestural to purely verbal speech. Fouts counters that the area of the brain responsible for manipulating the hands overlaps with that for manipulating the tongue.[35] His research shows that severely autistic children who are mute can gain the ability to speak after learning sign language.[36] This raises the question of whether or not our long history with tool making played a hand in our language evolution. The earliest tools were probably like the stone, wood, and grass technology used by chimpanzees.[37] The earliest lithic technology associated with the human lineage dates back to 2.5 million years ago. Although rough in form, it is more refined than the hefty pounders used by chimps. This technology grew progressively more complex and job specific as it passed through the various manufacturing industries. Then, around 50,000 years ago, there seems to be an explosion in human culture (see below). This may mark the transition from a mix of gestures and vocalizations to full blown verbal language. Scientists believe this might be when FOXP2, a gene present in many animals that controls brain development, underwent a small change in humans, giving us more control over our oral anatomy.[38] Perhaps tool use was an epigenetic trigger that caused the gene to activate differently. The previous use of gestures would have provided the grammar to dictate the structure of the spoken word.

Fouts explains that children embody the very process of language evolution. They are unable to talk when they are babies because their vocal cords are too high in their throats, just like primates. As infants, they begin communicating by gesturing with their hands. Their hand-eye motor skills improve as does their intelligible sounds. As their vocal cords descend, toddlers use gestures to compliment any words they may use. Spoken language eventually becomes their dominant mode of expression, but they will continue to freely alternate between verbal and gestural communication for the rest of their lives.[39] That last point can’t be stressed enough. The next time you are talking to someone or chatting on the phone, take notice of how much you talk with your hands.

[Image: sz0j.jpg]

Kanzi and Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh working with the lexigram board.

Spoken language would have provided several advantages to early humans. First and foremost, speech is far more complex and expressive than gesturing, which means it conveys more information. As previously mentioned, there was an explosion in human culture starting around 50,000 years ago. The acquisition of speech would have opened the door to the active transmission of knowledge as opposed to the passive learning of chimps. This knowledge could be built upon by each new generation, resulting in the great leaps in technology and culture known throughout history. Such knowledge could include oral tales, songs and music, art, and religious ideologies. Art is a symbolic representation of information just like language. Religion was and remains a catalyst for some of the most beautiful art ever produced (think of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). Second, speech would have acted as a glue to strengthen social bonds. Speaking a common tongue or sharing a religious ideology is a way that people negotiate their identities as a member of a particular group. Singing and music are other binding agents because they can cause the brain waves of the performer(s) and the audience to synchronize.[40] Close tightknit groups would have survived much better than loose conglomerates or individuals. Third, language could have served as a form of sexual selection. People who were good at storytelling and or singing and dancing would be advertising intelligence and physical prowess to prospective mates. Since these activities are energetically costly, they would have served as honest signals of mental and physical health.[41] Particularly talented individuals would have then benefited by having more offspring. Fourth and to a lesser extent, spoken language can be used even if its dark or someone has their back turned.

In conclusion, it is clear that modern apes like chimpanzees and bonobos share the same neurological mechanisms for language that humans have. The only things that hold them back from producing full blown human speech is a difference in oral anatomy and a reliance on gestural communication in the wild. Given that these mechanisms are present in both humans and apes, they were no doubt present in our last common ancestor (LCA) who lived around 7 million years ago. Proponents of the language organ theory believe that a special organ evolved in the human brain after our split with chimpanzees that led to the spontaneous creation of language complete with grammar. However, this mystery organ has never been located. Plus, the interval since the split is not long enough for a new structure to have evolved. Washoe, her son Loulis, and Kanzi show that modern apes are capable of learning and spontaneously producing grammatically correct language. They would not be able to do this if they didn’t have the special organ hypothesized by linguists. The most likely scenario for the emergence of grammatical language involves gestural communication, tool use, and a change in brain gene expression. Grammar would have been a consequence of gesturing because subjects, verbs, and objects are natural outgrowths of descriptive hand signals. The jump from gestures to full-blown speech may be connected to our long history of tool manufacture. This is because the area of the brain responsible for manipulating the hands overlaps with that for manipulating the tongue. The research of Roger Fouts shows that learning sign language activated the speech center of mute autistic children. A small change in the FOXP2 brain gene resulted in more control over our oral anatomy 50,000 years ago. Our tool manufacture may have been an epigenetic pressure that caused this gene to activate differently.

Spoken language would have provided early humans with several advantages. The most important would’ve been a more efficient mode of conveying information. This would have resulted in the active transmission of knowledge, including oral tales, songs and music, art, and religious ideologies. It would have also solidified group bonds via a common tongue or religion and the synchronizing effect of singing and music. Storytelling and or singing would have also acted as a form of sexual selection because prowess might have led to greater reproductive success.

Finally, I would like to say a most interesting project would involve introducing a language capable ape to a wild population and tracking whether or not signing would jump the generation gap. It probably wouldn’t considering that chimpanzees and bonobos get along fine without signing. But the example of Washoe and Loulis shows that it’s possible. The prospect of apes proliferating a human language or even creating their own based on it is just too exciting to think about without mentioning Planet of the Apes. However, there are two ethical concerns that outweigh the possible benefits of such a study. The first is that apes raised in a signing environment live in an ambiguous category where they are not quite human and not quite chimpanzee. Washoe, for instance, considered herself a human because she wasn’t raised around other Chimps.[42] This means she had to be separated from the main population when she was moved to a new facility. This separation was done for her own safety because she never learned to negotiate the complicated structure of chimp social hierarchy as a child.[43] The closest that a signing chimp has ever come to living in the wild was Lucy (1964-1987). After living 13 years as a human, she lived the last 10 in a nature reserve in Africa. She had an extremely hard time adjusting, and her untimely death may have been the result of naively approaching poachers.[44] The second is the fictional, yet apt concept of the “Prime Directive” from Star Trek. The Prime Directive dictates that Star Fleet cannot introduce advanced technology to an underdeveloped alien civilization for fear of negative results. Likewise, introducing human language to chimp community might have detrimental effects. In addition, it is unfair to the natural progression (or stagnation) of chimp civilization. Introducing a human concept just for the sake of knowledge is a form of colonialism. It’s no different than forcing English on a tribal society.

Notes

[1] Louise Röska-Hardy and Eva M. Neumann-Held, Learning from Animals?: Examining the Nature of Human Uniqueness (Hove: Psychology Press, 2009), 3.
[2] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1936), 235.
[3] Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewis R., Inside Kanzi’s Mind (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994), 163.
[4] Roger Fouts, Next of Kin: My Conversations With Chimpanzees (New York: Bard Books Inc, 1997), 26.
[5] Ibid, 25.
[6] Ibid, 26.
[7] Ibid, 27.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid, 30.
[10] Ibid, 73-79 and 83.
[11] Ibid, 97-98.
[12] Ibid, 100.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid, 101.
[15] Ibid, 106-107.
[16] Lawrence E. Johnson, A Morally Deep World: An Essay on Moral Significance and Environmental Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 27.
[17] Fouts, Next of Kin, 102.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid, 71-72.
[20] Ibid, 242-244.
[21] Ibid, 244.
[22] Ibid, 272-278
[23] Paul Raffaele, “Speaking Bonobo,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2006, accessed November 9, 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-na...nobo.html.
[24] Savage-Rumbaugh, Inside Kanzi’s Mind, 158-159.
[25] Ibid, 160.
[26] Ibid, 162.
[27] Raffaele, “Speaking Bonobo”.
[28] Savage-Rumbaugh, Inside Kanzi’s Mind, 170-171.
[29] Ibid, 172.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Fouts, Next of Kin, 94.
[32] Ibid, 93-94.
[33] Ibid, 194.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid, 195.
[36] Ibid, 185-189.
[37] William Clement McGrew, The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology (Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 111-115.
[38] Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 47-50.
[39] Fouts, Next of Kin, 197.
[40] The Economist, Why Music? Biologists Are Addressing One of Humanity's Strangest Attributes, it's All-Singing, All-Dancing Culture, Dec. 18, 2008, accessed November 3, 2013, http://www.economist.com/node/12795510. See also this very informative video for more information: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZmMF6cprC0.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Fouts, Next of Kin, 121-122.
[43] See chapter six in Ibid for more information.
[44] Ibid, 330.

Bibliography

Fouts, Roger. Next of Kin: My Conversations With Chimpanzees. New York: Bard Books Inc., 1997.

Johnson, Lawrence E. A Morally Deep World: An Essay on Moral Significance and Environmental Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1936.

McGrew, William Clement. The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Raffaele, Paul. “Speaking Bonobo.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2006. Accessed November 9, 2013. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-na...nobo.html.

Röska-Hardy, Louise, and Eva M. Neumann-Held. Learning from Animals?: Examining the Nature of Human Uniqueness. Hove: Psychology Press, 2009.

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue, and Lewis R. Inside Kanzi’s Mind. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994.

The Economist. Why Music? Biologists Are Addressing One of Humanity's Strangest Attributes, it's All-Singing, All-Dancing Culture. Dec. 18, 2008. Accessed November 3, 2013. http://www.economist.com/node/12795510.

Wade, Nicholas. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

I liked this. It was good to read, quite interesting and actually worth my time to do so (regardless of person posting, I always find myself cautious when it comes to reading large posts).

Thanks. I figured the length would be a deterrent for some people to read it.

Quote:However! There was one thing that annoyed me.

paragraph 6 Wrote:There are several theories regarding the evolution of language. Two in particle deal with the origin of grammar, the very structure of language.
This annoyed me; what do two particles have to do with this!? Spell-check cannot be relied upon!

Thanks for catching that. It's supposed to say "particular." I read it over numerous times before I submitted it. I guess my brain was filling in the missing letters.

Quote:One thing I found worth commenting on was this:
Paragraph 8 Wrote:The next time you are talking to someone or chatting on the phone, take notice of how much you talk with your hands.

This interests me; I figured there was some link between body langue and audio language but I didn't think it as large as you seem to, but it makes sense; even when I know nobody can see me and I'm talking/shouting to myself (I do that a lot, helps me think... kinda...) or when I'm talking to people on Skype, I move a lot. Lots of hand and arm movement, many facial expressions and the like. Now I think my highly animated discussion is more than a simple character quirk I hold, which is interesting to me.

I had never really thought about the connection myself until I read Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees (1997) by Roger Fouts. There is a recent book on the tie between language and the hands called Show of Hands: A Natural History of Sign Language (2011). Hopefully I will get some time to read it in the near future.
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12-11-2013, 09:25 AM
RE: The Talking Ape
Great paper. I am definitely smarter for reading that. Smile
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12-11-2013, 09:29 AM
RE: The Talking Ape
(12-11-2013 09:25 AM)jaguar3030 Wrote:  Great paper. I am definitely smarter for reading that. Smile

Thank you.
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12-11-2013, 02:42 PM
RE: The Talking Ape
(12-11-2013 03:55 AM)ghostexorcist Wrote:  
(12-11-2013 01:41 AM)Raptor Jesus Wrote:  Writing papers...the one part of college I didn't care for.

I enjoy writing papers if I know the subject well and, especially, if I have the time to finish them properly. This assignment was only supposed to be 1,000 words. It ended up being 3,500. I went a little overboard because I'm interested in the subject.

Well that's true I suppose. I was a physical anthropology major, so this is right up my alley. I love learning, and love teaching, and a well written paper is like a teaching, but has always just felt so tedious for me. I would have preferred to only have to do oral reports and presentations.

But if you like writting them, keep posting them. You got some readers here!

...
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12-11-2013, 02:55 PM
RE: The Talking Ape
(12-11-2013 09:05 AM)ghostexorcist Wrote:  
(12-11-2013 04:36 AM)Free Thought Wrote:  However! There was one thing that annoyed me.
paragraph 6 Wrote:There are several theories regarding the evolution of language. Two in particle deal with the origin of grammar, the very structure of language.
This annoyed me; what do two particles have to do with this!? Spell-check cannot be relied upon!

Thanks for catching that. It's supposed to say "particular." I read it over numerous times before I submitted it. I guess my brain was filling in the missing letters.

No worries. It never ceases to amaze me what kind of errors I make even after hours of proof-reading.

I have almost developed a fear of reading work my teachers hand back to me, for fear of seeing a really stupid spelling error or mistake I should have caught. I guess it's a bias thing; we read what we intended to write.

The people closely associated with the namesake of female canines are suffering from a nondescript form of lunacy.
"Anti-environmentalism is like standing in front of a forest and going 'quick kill them they're coming right for us!'" - Jake Farr-Wharton, The Imaginary Friend Show.
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13-11-2013, 08:17 AM
RE: The Talking Ape
(12-11-2013 02:42 PM)Raptor Jesus Wrote:  
(12-11-2013 03:55 AM)ghostexorcist Wrote:  I enjoy writing papers if I know the subject well and, especially, if I have the time to finish them properly. This assignment was only supposed to be 1,000 words. It ended up being 3,500. I went a little overboard because I'm interested in the subject.

Well that's true I suppose. I was a physical anthropology major, so this is right up my alley. I love learning, and love teaching, and a well written paper is like a teaching, but has always just felt so tedious for me. I would have preferred to only have to do oral reports and presentations.

But if you like writting them, keep posting them. You got some readers here!

I am also a physical anthro major. My focus is primate behavior and evolution, but I'm also interested in cultural stuff. I'm hoping to focus on the primate fossil record in grad school. I'll definitely post more material If I feel it's worthy.
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