Intelligent Design

Another claim for ape language that doesn’t pan out

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Well, John Berman’s ABC report “Hello, How Are You Doing?: Groundbreaking Research Has Scientists Talking with Apes” certainly sounded groundbreaking. The bonobos and orangutans at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, are said to “talk”*, using a 350 symbol keyboard on which they have been trained since infancy. One ofthem, a 26-year-old Bonobo, Kanzi, is the star: He can map a series of English words to symbols on the keyboard. But then, it all fell apart during Berman’s “interview” with the ape:

Sound beyond belief? During a visit to the Great Ape Trust, I sat down with Kanzi the Bonobo — the first Ape I have ever interviewed.

I read Kanzi a series of words, and then without fail, he hit the corresponding lexigram symbol on a touch screen.

I said “Egg.”

He pressed “Egg.”

I said, “M and M.”

He pressed “M and M.”

Then Kanzi took control of the conversation and pressed the symbol for “Surprise!”

Needless to say, I was quite surprised, having never actually spoken to an ape before.

But Kanzi was pointing to a box of candy that I was sitting near. That is the surprise that he wanted.

I’ll just bet that was the surprise Kanji wanted. And far from all this sounding “beyond belief”, I would be really surprised if, having been pestered this way since infancy, Kanji could not have managed at least this much communication. Dogs do it regularly.

I myself taught a cat to recognize and respond to a number of words in 1964. And the cat, like the ape, could be relied on to choose the point at which she felt she should be rewarded for her cooperation and to identify the location of any reward she was being offered. For their prudence in such matters, I commend both the cat and the ape.

But the whole experiment points up the fundamental problem identified by Jonathan Marks in What does it mean to be 98% Chimpanzee?: The ape hasn’t anything to say, in particular, that requires a high level of language skill. If he is under your control and you force him to learn some routine for a box of candy, he must comply – whether you are operating a circus act or a lab. But beyond a certain point, it all sounds like cruelty to me.

The people involved mean well – they want to protect apes. Then why couldn’t they just let them be apes?

And what a naive thought! – that apes can really help us understand the fundamental riddles of human existence. As if I could make that long-departed cat understand the motivations that caused me to teach her some sit and rollover tricks.

(I was refuting the claim made by some acquaintances that cats cannot be taught to respond to simple words. They can indeed be taught to respond to simple words, if motivated, but they are hard to motivate. The cat’s native senses are far better than the human’s, and the cat – who, unlike the dog, has no great delight in obedience – is readily distracted by other interests.)

Here are some linguists’ thoughts on these perennial talking animals stories and why they don’t pan out.

*Apes’ vocal cords do not seem to permit speech, so experiment in communicating with primates rely on signals of various types.

Also at the Mindful Hack:

Is the altruism spot edging out the God spot as the latest “hardwired” fad in pop science?

Secularism: Early postmortem results. Here are links and comments on some thoughtful reflections on secularism and Islam.

An early rejection of intelligent design a key factor in best-selling author Christopher Hitchens’ atheism.

Do you really need a brain? You might be surprised.

9 Replies to “Another claim for ape language that doesn’t pan out

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    This type of suggestive “evidence” is often used to back up the neo-Darwinian claims. Yet it is commonly known that the fossil record does not support “gradual” evolution. And even with the fossil record as crushing to the evolutionary theory as it is, evolutions greatest stumbling block is the absolute inability of natural methods to account for the generation of meaningful information in the DNA. (Generation of meaningful information in DNA by natural means would be a violation of Genetic Entropy). For even though it is suggested that evolution is true, when we look at the 98.8% similarity between the DNA of a Chimpanzee and the DNA of a Human, that similarity is not good enough to be considered “conclusive” scientific proof. Our DNA is 92% similar to mice and 92% similar to the zebra fish. Does that make us 92% mouse or 92% zebrafish? Our DNA is 44% similar to a fruit fly; are we therefore 44% fruit fly? Our DNA is 18% similar to the weed thale cress; does that make us 18% thale cress? Of course not! We must dig deeper to find the integrity of mutation rates in DNA to see if the change is possible at all. Which we, through the miracle of science, can now do. The primary thing that is crushing to the evolutionary theory is this fact. Of the random mutations that do occur, and have manifested traits in organisms that can be measured, at least 99.9999% of these mutations to the DNA have been found to produce traits in organisms that are harmful and/or to the life-form having the mutation! Professional evolutionary biologists are hard-pressed to cite even one clear-cut example of evolution through a beneficial mutation to the DNA that has not in reality reduced function at the molecular level. These following quotes make this point clear.

    “It is entirely in line with the al nature of naturally occurring mutations that extensive tests have agreed in showing the vast majority of them to be detrimental to the organisms in its job of surviving and reproducing, just as changes ally introduced into any artificial mechanism are predominantly harmful to its useful operation” H.J. Muller (Received a Nobel Prize for his work on mutations to DNA)

    “But there is no evidence that DNA mutations can provide the sorts of variation needed for evolution… There is no evidence for beneficial mutations at the level of macroevolution, but there is also no evidence at the level of what is commonly regarded as microevolution.” Jonathan Wells (PhD. Molecular Biology)

    “We see the apparent inability of mutations to truly contribute to the origin of new structures. The theory of gene duplication in its present form is unable to account for the origin of new genetic information” Ray Bohlin, (PhD. in molecular and cell biology)

    Man has over 3 billion base pairs of DNA code, which according to Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, far, far surpasses, in complexity, any computer program ever written by man. Even if there was just a 1% difference of DNA between chimps and humans, that would still be 30 million base pairs of DNA difference. It is easily shown, mathematically, for it to be fantastically impossible for evolution to ever occur between chimps and man, or chimps and anything else for that matter. Since, it is an established fact that at least 999,999 in 1,000,000 of any mutations to DNA will be harmful and/or , then it is also an established fact that there is at least a 999,999^30,000,000 to one chance that the monkey will fail to reach man by evolutionary processes. The monkey will hit a end of harmful/fatal mutations that will kill him or severely mutilate him before him. The poor monkey barely even gets out of the evolutionary starting gate before he is crushed by blind chance. This would still be true even if the entire universe were populated with nothing but monkeys to begin with! This number (999,999^30,000,000), is Impossible for blind chance to overcome! If that was not bad enough for the naturalists, mathematician William Dembski PhD. has worked out the foundational math that shows the mutation/natural selection scenario to be impossible EVEN IF the harmful/fatal rate for mutation to the DNA were only 50%. The evolutionist stamps his feet and says that symbiotic gene transfer, cross-breeding (yes, they have, desperately, even suggested cross-breeding as a solution), gene duplication and multiplication of chromosomes, alternative splicing etc .. etc .. are the reasons for the changes in DNA between humans and apes. They say these things with utmost confidence without even batting an eye. Incredibly, this is done in spite of exhaustive experimental evidence that has shown these mechanisms are all subject to the principle of Genetic Entropy.
    Evolutionists can point out similarities all day long but until they show how meaningful information can be generated that will violate genetic entropy they are just psuedo scientists who have failed to establish a rigorous foundation that can stand up to scrutiny!

  2. 2
    Karen says:

    Kanzi is a bonobo chimp, not an orangutan. The bonobo is much gentler than the chimp and is easier to work with. They had a great video of Kanzi at the American Museum of Natural History. He was being naughty and jumped on a dog, so his trainer ran over to him and pressed “bad, bad” on the keyboard. So Kanzi took the keyboard and pressed “good.” Too funny!

    (Anyway, I did love the pun in the article.)

  3. 3
    O'Leary says:

    Thanks for the correction, Karen. And here I was going to all that trouble to spell “orangutan” right. -d.

  4. 4
    rb says:

    I feel parrots, like Alex the African Grey from Dr. Pepperberg’s lab, far outdo anything I have seen from an ape. 1st, Alex can actually speak (without vocal cords). He can ask for a drink, say goodnight, count objects, understands the concept of absolute zero, etc, etc, etc. I had an African Grey for 2 years. After a few months of training, he was vocally telling me when he had to goto the bathroom and would ask politely at first to be picked up, then use a stern voice if we didn’t do it. They are absolutely amazing and VERY underrated. Since this apparently has nothing to do with evolution, parrots and other intelligent birds (eg. Ravens) get hardly any press or $$$. If Dr. Pepperberg was getting a tiny slice of what the researchers of apes get, I am certain there is a whole new world to explore.

  5. 5
    Rude says:

    Good for you, Denyse, perceptive as always! On the apes as also your link–spot on! I read Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, and have to agree with him, and also Mustafa Akyol whom you cite. Vast hordes can be deceived—utterly deceived—but almost never are they incorrigible. And so our war must extend to the arena of ideas, both at home and abroad. On this matter I highly recommend Joshua Muravchik’s article, My Saudi Sojourn, in the latest Commentary.

  6. 6
    Rude says:

    Good for you, Denyse, perceptive as always! On the apes as also your link–spot on! I read Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, and have to agree with him, and also Mustafa Akyol whom you cite. Vast hordes can be deceived—utterly deceived—but almost never are they incorrigible. And so our war must extend to the arena of ideas, both at home and abroad. On this matter I highly recommend Joshua Muravchik’s article, “My Saudi Sojourn”, in the latest (June 2007) Commentary.

  7. 7
    realpc says:

    That was just a silly TV news story. This one, for example, is more convincing:

  8. 8

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