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New assessment dramatically scales back ape language skills

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You’ve probably heard about all the apes who have been taught to communicate using sign language in recent years. As Mario Beauregard and I discuss in The Spiritual Brain, the discovery that American Sign Language could, in principle, be taught to apes spurred a number of interesting research projects – and some pretty unrealistic claims. In Dragons of Eden (1986), for example, Carl Sagan dreamed of a day when

Although a few years ago it would have seemed the most implausible science fiction, it does not appear to me out of the question that, after a few years in such a verbal chimpanzee community, there might emerge the memoirs of the natural history and mental life of a chimpanzee, published in English or Japanese (with perhaps an “as told to” after the byline).

What you probably DIDN’T hear much about is the mood of skepticism with which much of the science community has greeted this work in recent years – even as the apes impress hosts on national television programs.

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Supposing it's true that apes cannot acquire true language. (And notice that this could be because of syntax -- they cannot master grammatical rules -- or because of semantics -- they cannot grasp symbols. Or both.) What bearing could that possibly have on the metaphysics of mind one way or the other? Carl Sachs
Reading this thread, on apes communicating with humans, SETI, aliens, and what not, reminded me of this: CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? With that question, a cell phone company sells its wireless service. Yet, this question is probably what God is asking us everyday. This vital point of contention was clearly illustrated one recent night on the Public Broadcasting Systems show "Origins". It was the first part of a four part series in which the show takes a look at such questions as "Where did life start? "Are we alone in the cosmos?" The show is a superficial treatment of the many problems in science explaining how life started and the question of whether we are alone in this universe. The treatment of scientific inquiry is thoroughly shoddy when they wave their magic wand to proclaim life has the ability to just magically appear. They garner even more groans from me as they wave the magical wand proclaiming time and time again that evolution has the magical ability to account for the amazing interconnected complexity of life on this earth. Yet, I endured the show so that I might garner a valid point or two for the Anthropic Hypothesis and Intelligent Design. I was rewarded with a rather humorous event in which the spiritual deafness of humans was humorously pointed out. The narrators of the show were doing an interview with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) people. I was impressed. The SETI organization has branches in several states with radio telescopes and high-end computers in each state, vainly listening for that extra-terrestrial voice from the sky. They are indeed a well equipped and well endowed organization. They were reviewing the fact that though there have been some false alarms that has caused some major excitement, there has never actually been any received transmission from an extra-terrestrial intelligence, within the 40 years that SETI has operated. The interviewer was questioning a "scientist" at his computer bank when the "scientist" said. "We got the equipment to listen. If they ever call we will be listening. We are just waiting for them to call". And with that being said, in the next instance the telephone rang right behind the "scientist". Though he made a joke and said that it was probably the extra-terrestrial intelligence calling, He failed to see the humor that God poured into that situation. Whoever was actually on the Phone is besides the point. It could have been a telemarketer for that matter. The main point that he had missed is that the phone rang exactly when he had said "if an extra terrestrial intelligence ever calls we will be listening", on national T.V. no less. I have news for that scientist, God was calling and in His sovereignty made that phone ring at that particular instance and indeed the “scientist” was not really listening for “some strange signal from the sky” though he was proclaiming that he was “listening” for some strange signal from the sky. I had to laugh at the whole situation for I have seen God speak many, many, many times using such remarkable “supernatural coincidences” to get His point across. Psalms 115:6 They have ears, but they do not hear; CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? bornagain77
" The notion that apes can learn grammar was treated as the default “scientific” position in accounts of the subject - even though one did not need a great deal of familiarity with the area to see why it probably wasn’t true." Where do you get this notion? Do you somehow believe that the scientific community, who DO have a great deal of the (unnecessary) familiarity with the area, don't see the claims for what they are? You are wrong, the "default" scientific position was not as you describe. It's really odd that you have that idea; do you get your science information solely from unskeptical journalistic sources? MacT
getawitness, it would be scary indeed to think that everyone was fooled. But one Chomsky doesn't alter a pattern that Mario Beaaregard and I note in The Spiritual Brain - a very familiar pattern, replicated widely over many issues. The notion that apes can learn grammar was treated as the default "scientific" position in accounts of the subject - even though one did not need a great deal of familiarity with the area to see why it probably wasn't true. Now, of course, the fact that that was the case - as is demonstrated by the way popular culture sources replicate it to this day - is somehow supposed to fall down a memory hole. That way, we can avoid disconfirming a materialist prediction. I for one will work to see that it doesn't fall down a memory hole, but is entered among the disconfirmed materialist predictions. That will force materialists to redefine their theory so as to exclude what they once enthusastically included as evidence. Eventually, a paper trail develops ... O'Leary
"If it is true that “Most of the field never accepted the broader claims”, I wonder why most of the field did such a poor job of conveying its collective doubts all this time." On what grounds do you charge most of the field of doing of poor job of communicating about ape language? The debate has been out and open all along. MacT
Denyse, I think different groups of scientists took different views. The primatologists were probably more in favor of the idea of ape language, but the linguists never took it that seriously. Back about 10 years ago, Steven Pinker, a prominent arch-Darwinian linguist, trashed ape language roundly in The Language Instinct. His book was reviewed all over the place, mostly favorably. He's quite the Darwinist, and he was never branded a denialist -- at least on that issue. getawitness
MacT, you write, "This “new” assessment is hardly new, and not news." Hey, no need to argue with me. e-skeptic seemed to think it was news. Maybe because Kanzi appeared on a TV show earlier this very year. If it is true that "Most of the field never accepted the broader claims", I wonder why most of the field did such a poor job of conveying its collective doubts all this time. Did they risk being branded as "denialists" or something? O'Leary
This "new" assessment is hardly new, and not news. The results of the Kanzi (and before that Nim and Washoe and others) studies have been published and hashed over by developmental psycholinguists, cognitive scientists, and others for many years. Most of the field never accepted the broader claims made for ape language use, treating it as interesting but fundamentally NOT comparable to human language. Presenting it here as if it is some kind of revelation risks giving the wrong impression of the scientists to people who do not follow the literature. MacT
A _fantastic_ critique of the Berman article is here--well worth reading. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004558.html#more SteveB
Frost122585, talk about the vast differences between human and primate brains. I think they are that much different organs because they plug into entirely different souls. The signals transmitted to and from the human and ape brain, respectively, are vastly different as well, giving rise to all the wonderful differences. Just to show the irrational restriction to scientific understanding forced by the materialist fantasy. An interesting post-naturalist study would be to attempt to pinpoint the soul activity (pure indeterministic phenomenon) of primates by studying its instantiation in the brain activity. mullerpr
“I can’t wait till an alien race comes so we can stop all this religious bull****” I'm not sure I follow his thinking. Wasn't C.S. Lewis' "Perelandra" a Sci Fi story about God interacting with beings on another planet? What's the basis for assuming that aliens will be less religious? If it turns out aliens worship the same God that [many] humans do, then your friend may be in for even more "religious bull****" when aliens appear! :) russ
I dispute the article's conclusions. I live with three chimps that use human grammar flawlessly. mike1962
Another valid question could be "Is human intelligence evolving?" We may know more things than 200 years ago, but have our abilities collectively improved? Berceuse
Well I have to say this is just another example of why apes and humans are vastly different. The brain structure of a human being vastly differs form that of an ape even when a human being is at its youngest age. At full grown the differences are even more obvious. Lets give apes an I. Q. test shall we? Then use the results to see how much MORE intelligent a human being is in average. As the old example demonstrates "try teaching an ape quantum mechanics and see how he does." The quantitative and qualitative differences between apes and humans is obviously huge. How can evolution account for this? After some zealous Darwinist invents a series of mutations and the such that could bring about this transformation than only one question remains "why are modern apes evolving?" No one will be able to come up with an explanation or even description of the suspiciously mysterious force that seems to choose when and where to place those elusive transmutations. If science cant explain the nature of this force than Darwinism relies on either a supernatural cause or an argument from ignorance. I.D., however explains quite easily the where and when "choice" issue... But the why still belongs to the Theologians . Frost122585
I'm curious, did they try asking Kanzi to "take the room to the hat?" Anyway, I agree with nullasalus. Reminds me of something a friend said once: "I can't wait till an alien race comes so we can stop all this religious bull****" He can be a bit of a hot-head so I didn't bother responding. Given the results of SETI, I doubt this will happen, but I will not be concerned if it does. What's funny is that while E.T. contact could certainly be a windfall for atheists, beliefs in UFOs, aliens, or abductions seem to carry the same pseudoscience stigma that atheists use as their battle-cry. What do you think, Amy? "Amy. Jungle....Bad....Darwinists, Go Away!" Berceuse
The day when a non-human and (demonstrably) sentient being greets humanity is a dream-situation for some atheists. Something about how it's going to put those terrible humans (especially religious) in their place for daring to think humanity is special. Personally, even if it occurs, I won't be too concerned. But I'm glad to see the ape sign-language question being addressed. Finding out what Koko calls humans was a snickering point for me. nullasalus

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