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PBS: Apes’ inability to use symbolic language may just be “nurture”

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From Rachel Nuwer at PBS Nova Next:

Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA, but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species. Is that by necessity of nature, though, or simply a question of nurture?

“It could be that there’s something biologically different in our genome, something that’s changed since we split from apes, and that’s language,” says Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But another possibility is that they might have the cognitive capacity for language, but they’re not able to physically express it like we do.”

Scientists have been trying to teach chimps to speak for decades, with efforts ranging from misguided to tantalizingly promising. Now, however, they are coming to realize that we’ve likely been going about it in the wrong way. Rather than force apes to learn our language, we should be learning theirs.

“Rather than force apes to learn our language, we should be learning theirs.”? Yes, absolutely. That works with dogs, cats, and horses, too. And when we succeed, we discover that they are just not interested in the same things as humans are, probably because they can’t be.

So far, she and her colleagues have translated what they believe are the chimps’ basic 60–80 gestures, plus a number of facial expressions and vocalizations. She believes that, together, these things make up ape language phonics. Distilling the meaning of those various sounds and gestures when put together, however, will be a much more challenging and drawn-out task. More.

That’s sophistication right up there with the bee dance. The researchers’ task will be especially “challenging and drawn-out” if, instead of specific signals being genetically encoded, chimpanzees have the capacity to develop signals, which means that signal systems may differ among troupes. That is also true of human communication.

But the dream that chimpanzees are just us, misunderstood and discriminated against, never dies and never will die. Expect much more of this.

Note: Cats have a number of language signals but t’s complicated by the fact that they use their eyes, tails and body positions as well as their voices to communicate. They do not use a symbolic language system.

See also: Are IQ tests “unfair” to apes?

Are apes entering the Stone Age?

and

Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain?

6 Replies to “PBS: Apes’ inability to use symbolic language may just be “nurture”

  1. 1
    ScuzzaMan says:

    My money’s on food and sex.

    Wake me up if one of them asks for a million typewriters …

  2. 2
    aarceng says:

    “… nearly 99% of the same DNA.” Just what will it take to kill this zombie?

  3. 3
    ScuzzaMan says:

    Lies circle the world before the truth has it’s shoes on.

    I favour Berlinski’s attitude; it’s the differences that are really of interest not the similarities. Do apes sit around in the trees discussing how humans share 99% of their DNA but oddly spend their time composing poetry and investigating the nature of reality?

    No, they don’t, and I don’t think any form of nurture is going to change that, in spite of the mental meanderings of certain primatologists.

  4. 4
    mike1962 says:

    Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA,

    A 747 and a crashed 747 share all of the same parts. But one flies beautifully with navigation, communication, and a host of other functions. The crashed 747 does nothing at all.

    The order of the DNA and that last 1% obviously makes a helluva lot of difference.

    but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species.

    A whole lot more than that differentiates our species. When a chimp writes an etude, builds a bridge, erects a skyscraper, or designs an space station, let me know.

    Anyhoo, take a chimp, raise it as a human, it doesn’t get very far after the first year or so. Yawn.

  5. 5
    Eric Anderson says:

    ScuzzaMan, you put your finger, or Berlinski’s finger, on a very important point.

    Evolutionists love to talk about similarities. Because it is the one thing that, at least at first pause, gives the uninitiated listener an impression that there must be some kind of causal or historical relationship between different species. It is part of the storyline narrative that is supposed to give evolutionary theory credibility.

    But for evolution to be taken seriously as a theory that explains the creative engine behind all of biolgy, it needs to explain the changes, the differences, the development of new things.

    Let’s remember that Darwin wrote a book about the “origin” of species. He failed to explain the origin of species, to be sure, but at least he attempted to explain how the differences arise. He didn’t write a book titled, “How Similarities Persist in Species.” We don’t need a theory to explain how things don’t change over time.

    If the theory of evolution is to be taken seriously, it must explain the differences, with a credible mechanism, not just endlessly prattle on about the similarities between species.

  6. 6
    Eric Anderson says:

    mike1962:

    When a chimp writes an etude, builds a bridge, erects a skyscraper, or designs an space station, let me know.

    Exactly.

    The order of the DNA and that last 1% obviously makes a helluva lot of difference.

    It certainly can make a big difference.

    There is one other possibility we should not forget. Let’s assume that human and chimp DNA were 100% identical, down to the last nucleotide. Would this prove that humans and chimps are identical? No. What it would prove is that the vast differences between humans and chimps are not in the DNA.

    At this point we don’t know enough to conclude which of these possibilities is correct (tiny DNA changes = massive differences, or significant differences outside of DNA). My sense is that we are dealing with both.

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