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?
Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain?