Friday, 1 October 2010

Who gives a monkeys? ...psychology Friday

So... apes, chimps, pygmy chimps to be precise or bonobos if you prefer. They're famous for something, and it isn't talking. It's also not the kind of thing you should be teaching in a Girls' School or any school for that matter, so we're opting for the safer shores of Savage-Rumbaugh's classic 1986 Dr Doolittle experiment. Can Dr Susan S-R talk to the animals? Or they to her? And if they can, what - if anything - does that tell us about human language acquisition?

The first thing to say is that the results are quite impressive. You can see for yourself how much Kanzi and his younger sister Mulika learned in the eighteen month experiment, and seeing a bonobo drawing symbols with chalk in a clear attempt to communicate is remarkable. But then, doesn't your dog 'tell' you when it want a wee? Communication alone isn't the same as language, and of course humans are the only species physically equipped for speech. But the plot thickens when you realise the bonobos weren't explicitly taught to communicate (two common chimpanzees, called Sherman and Austin, were given instruction but didn't do half as well) but acquired their abilities as least in part through watching the researchers. They also ended up being able both to understand and respond to spoken English.

So far, so fascinating. And of course, as members of the same family there are certain implications for human language acquisition. Unfortunately, so little is known about our highly complex linguistic abilities that it's almost impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions. What is known (and will be obvious to any parents of toddlers!) is that young children soon start to use more words than they've ever been 'taught', suggesting to the likes of Noam Chomsky that our brains are hard-wired at birth for speech. On the other hand, several case-studies suggest that if children haven't learned to speak by the age of seven, they won't - or at least, that they'll find it incredibly difficult.

So what has Susan Savage-Rumbaugh proved, beyond that bonobos share slightly more in common with humans than... well, you know what? Personally, I think the answer is 'not much'. Pygmy chimps are clever, no doubt; they're closely related ancestors - we share 99% of the same DNA (don't too excited - we share 50% of our DNA with a banana too!). But communication isn't language, even if artificially-introduced symbols are part of the equation. And intelligence isn't a defining characteristic of being human, otherwise many of man's best friends would be getting their National Insurance Numbers.

Human language is one of the most complex and remarkable manifestations of that great surplus brain we grew about 150,000 years ago. Maybe - given typewriters - monkeys could produce the works of Shakespeare in time. And if they did, would they be as good as the original?

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