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Deciphering the Chatter of Monkeys and Chimps - Comments

God fearing Atheist's Avatar Comment 1 by God fearing Atheist

What came first - theory of mind or language? Good question. Co-evolution? When they were talking about all primates having the requisite systems but not evolving language I kept thinking "homonids". Some primates DID evolve language. We are the only species of that lineage left. Or, in ID terms, "if we evolved from non-linguistic primates, why are their still non-linguistic primates?".

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 15:05:00 UTC | #431541

bluebird's Avatar Comment 2 by bluebird

Tonight (13th) is part two of PBS 'The Human Spark' - So Human, So Chimp:

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 15:37:00 UTC | #431549

Supreme Boeing's Avatar Comment 3 by Supreme Boeing

If Christians evolved from Jews, why are there still Jews?

Funny how the term that applies to that sentence is Godwin :-P

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 20:56:00 UTC | #431609

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 4 by BanJoIvie

2. Comment #450473 by bluebird on January 13, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Tonight (13th) is part two of PBS 'The Human Spark' - So Human, So Chimp:

I just started watching the first epi. And what do I see before we even get to the program proper? "Additional funding provided by.......


Boo. Here's hoping that it gets better from here.

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 21:20:00 UTC | #431613

root2squared's Avatar Comment 5 by root2squared

This was quite interesting. At the very least, it seems we can be sure that there is a specific meaning attached to various sounds, even if there is no language. I didn't see anything about the tone or pitch or volume in the article. Could it be that the same word produced in a different sound changes its meaning?

When I was a kid, I used to try to "talk" to my cousin's dog. I used to think that if indeed the barks were similar to words of a language, then some of my random barking and growling should produce some dog words which would cause it to react in some way.

In some cases, initially, she would tilt her head to one side. With every bark on my part, she would keep tilting her head to the other side. After a while, she just ignored me.

At the end of my experiments, based on the reactions I got, I concluded that either she didn't understand my accent or she thought "This guy is crazy and I'm going to pretend I can't hear anything".

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 21:37:00 UTC | #431616

Christopher Davis's Avatar Comment 6 by Christopher Davis

How many of you here have heard of Irene Pepperberg and Alex the parrot?

Pepperberg spent 20 years working with a gray parrot named Alex and some of the reported results were remarkable. Although her critics claim that the bird was simply displaying advanced levels of mimicry and memorization, Pepperberg contends Alex was capable of expressing original thought.

Normally I would be highly skeptical, but I've read so many articles about this bird and 20 years is a long time for something that has no merit to be continuoulsy funded.

Alex died not to long ago, and there is a book out about his life (I believe it is by Pepperberg), but I haven't had a chance to read it.

Anyway, whenever I read articles like the one above, I can't help but wonder if research into this field wouldn't be further along if the prevailing wisdom wasn't "study primates because they are closest to us".

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 23:34:00 UTC | #431635

Quine's Avatar Comment 7 by Quine

We talked about it a couple of years ago:

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 23:50:00 UTC | #431638

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 8 by Dr. Strangegod

Have they tried feeding the apes psilocybin? Just for the sake of science, you know. Because the Hicksian magic mushroom theory of human brain evolution seems to keep panning out every time I read about this.

What is it that has kept all other primates locked in the prison of their own thoughts? Drs. Seyfarth and Cheney believe that one reason may be that they lack a “theory of mind”; the recognition that others have thoughts... At some point in human evolution, on the other hand, people developed the desire to share thoughts, Dr. Zuberbühler notes...Yet it is this step that seems the most mysterious of all. Marc D. Hauser, an expert on animal communication at Harvard, sees the uninhibited interaction between different neural systems as critical to the development of language. “For whatever reason, maybe accident, our brains are promiscuous in a way that animal brains are not, and once this emerges it’s explosive,” he said.
Um. Well, we know that certain chemicals have the ability to add a bit of "promiscuity" to human neural systems, so why not feed them to apes? Perhaps in a banana smoothie?

EDIT: Holy shit everybody, look what I just found by Googling to see if such an experiment had ever been done. Elephants on Acid.
[In 1982, Ronald] Siegel [of UCLA] mixed the drug into their water, and when it was administered in this way, the elephants not only survived but didn't seem too upset at all. They acted sluggish, rocked back and forth, and made some strange vocalizations such as chirping and squeaking, but within a few hours they were back to normal.
Oh reaaaallly? What do you think they were trying to talking about?

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 23:54:00 UTC | #431639

Christopher Davis's Avatar Comment 9 by Christopher Davis


Thanks. I wasn't yet a member. Good to see that I'm not the only one who was impressed with Alex's abilities.

Thu, 14 Jan 2010 00:03:00 UTC | #431643

Quine's Avatar Comment 10 by Quine

Thanks for your interest, Christopher. I think the biology of intelligence is important to study, not only in people, but also through the evolutionary continuum. Bird intelligence is particularly interesting to me because I suspect evolution has forced them (who still fly) to get the most out of every gram of brain organization to pay for the weight cost.

Gray's are tricky and you can't turn you back on one. Here is what happened to me when I was birdsitting last year:

Thu, 14 Jan 2010 01:27:00 UTC | #431651

Christopher Davis's Avatar Comment 11 by Christopher Davis

I think you are absolutely right. We tend to be very anthrocentric when we think about intelligence. By broadening our view I think we can learn so much more about how brains work (all brains) and what exactly "intelligence" is.

Thu, 14 Jan 2010 17:38:00 UTC | #431781

dumbcountryhick's Avatar Comment 12 by dumbcountryhick

When does a child become an adult? Is it the very second that they turn 18?

When does an animal have a language?

Tue, 19 Jan 2010 02:13:00 UTC | #432914

jssl's Avatar Comment 13 by jssl

Interesting stuff!  And I'm sad I missed that PBS series.

I think that theory of mind is not as well-defined as it should be.  There is plenty of experimental evidence out there that infants are drawn to the actions of others; they can follow eye gaze, they understand pointing gestures, and they even react to facial expressions.  This is a sort of "social programming" that is important for language learning, and thus likely evolved either before or in tandem with linguistic ability; however, the term "theory of mind" is also applied to more complex reasoning about the brain states of others.  These more complex skills (like false belief tasks and recovering pragmatic implicatures, to name two examples) are not mastered until at least age four.  The more rudimentary form of TOM looks like an evolutionary endowment, while the latter form may be a higher level process.

As for what counts as "language":  there are theories about this.  The work of Chomsky, Hauser, and Fitch suggests that the only aspect of human language unique to homo sapiens is recursion-- the ability to make potentially infinite use of finite means.  I think Steven Pinker has taken issue with their argument, but I can't remember his counter-argument.  But when we're looking at monkey communication, there is a more striking feature that lacks:  the ability to refer to things that are not present.  Strangely enough, bees seem to have this ability, but as far as I know, there are no primates outside of our species that can "talk" about anything but immediate dangers/food sources/etc.

I'm always really fascinated by this kind of work, but I share in the general pessimism that telling an evolutionary story of how language came to be, at this juncture, leads inevitably to oversimplifications.

Thu, 20 May 2010 00:17:07 UTC | #471551