Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ape watch: Another claim for ape language that doesn't pan out

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 orangutan, 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.

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