Great Ape language - real?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by aaqucnaona, Dec 27, 2011.

  1. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    So I hear that all great apes can apparently use language and that they understand and use sign language just as humans do [more like children, but they can do it].

    So my question is this:

    We know great apes, being one of them, have big brains. So maybe they are smart enough to know that if the make a few signs, they will get a reward. Even if they could associate the signs with objects and recombine them to form new words, but how do we know this association is not like pavlov's dog where the association is behavioural and not mental?

    Do they truely use language like us, using it for thinking, self reflection, making conscious decisions, feeling, understanding and expressing emotions and so on? If yes, how does it affect our perspective of them as animals? Should we consider them evolutionarily disadvantaged cousins [in a sympathetic way]? If they truely can use language like us, the lines between us and the rest of apes gets very much smudged indeed, doesn't it?
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  3. gmilam Valued Senior Member

    The lines between us and our cousins are usually fairly blurry. The differences are more a matter of degree than of kind.
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The last I heard, only two other species of great ape have been taught ASL: the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and the "true" chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). The bonobo chimpanzee (P. paniscus) has not yet participated in the program. Since orangutans (Pongo borneo, P. pygmaeus and P. abelii) are not social and have very limited reason to bother communicating at all, nobody's even tried it with them.
    That has not really been established. It's a Turing Machine kind of problem, with the non-human ape sitting in place of the computer. There have been some remarkable experiences in the program, such as one of the apes (sorry I don't remember her name or even which species) teaching ASL to her own child. And there was the ape who had not been very far out of the lab; he saw a zebra for the first time and said excitedly to his handler, "Look, a white tiger!"

    I have often asked whether any deaf humans have participated in this program and so far I've not found an answer. One would think that a human who has always communicated exclusively in ASL would be far better qualified to decide if a non-human is "using it just as humans do."
    Our brain is qualitatively much larger than any of theirs, so it stands to reason that we must surely have many cognitive abilities that they do not. The brain of Homo neanderthalensis is approximately the same size as ours, and recent research strongly suggests that their brain had a speech center, like ours. But none of our ancestral species had a brain anywhere near the size of ours, so it's virtually impossible that they could have invented the technology of spoken language.

    Of course this does not rule out the invention of sign language, which requires only the use of hands that were already well-developed. (When Jean Auel began her "Earth's Children" series with Clan of the Cave Bear, it was not yet known that Neanderthals might have had speech, so hers communicate in an elaborate sign language.) Besides, parrot brains have no speech center, but Alex the African Grey was able to compose accurate, meaningful phrases such as "large red key."
    This doesn't account for them teaching it to each other so they can talk among themselves.
    It's waaay too complicated to be Pavlovian conditioning. ASL is not English (every sign language has its own grammar, which is not necessarily closely related to the surrounding spoken language), but it does have grammar and syntax. I don't see how Pavlovian conditioning could direct something so complex.
    What information do you suppose anyone has that would help them determine the answer to that question? You're back to the Turing Machine again. I would suppose that the only reliable way to get that answer would be to ask them. Unfortunately, because their brains are, indeed, considerably smaller than ours, their command of language is rather limited in scope. Unlike a parrot they can speak in complete sentences, but so can a three year-old human, and he would not be able to answer your question about himself.
    Why not think of all non-human animals that way? We've never worked with primates, but we've had enough parrots of various species in our house to automatically regard them as people with somewhat limited mental capacity. (This year it would be more than enough to run for President.

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    ) Even dogs (after undergoing twenty thousand generations of selective breeding at our hands) are quite expressive emotionally and quite sympathetic to the emotions of others, and they can learn the meaning of as many as 200 single words.

    Cetaceans obviously communicate with sound. Although we haven't been able to "crack the code" of any species's sounds yet (perhaps because their universe is so different from ours that we don't have very many concepts in common--how many of our idioms contain the word "hand" or "foot"?

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    ), we've discovered that in some species each individual has a name, and that each pod has its own little chant that could be anything from a war cry, to a national anthem, to a ribald marching cadence on the order of "I don't know/But I've been told/Eskimo pie/Is mighty cold/Sound off/One-two/Sound off/Three-Four." The more intelligent-seeming species of whales and dolphins may turn out to be the most intelligent non-human animals.

    I don't know about you, but just in case that's true (and even if they're only as intelligent as a gorilla or even my dog) I would really like to see people stop eating them!
    We drew the line because we're in charge. So it's up to us to change it. We do have the largest brains (proportional to size, remember that a major amount of brain tissue is devoted to the sensory and motor nervous system, which is rather large in a whale), so we assumed leadership of the entire ecosystem. Considering what a fabulously great job we're doing, I don't think reclassifying the most intelligent non-human animals as second-class citizens, or something like that, is at the top of anyone's agenda. We should probably concentrate for now on making sure all of us have a place to live.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2011
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  7. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    Thank you, Fraggle Rocker. Wonderful answer.
  8. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    Fraggle -
    This probably sounds stupid, but I dont get your comparision of them with turing machines [I only know that they erase and write stuff on tapes].
    Second, compared to humans, where do they stand? Are they like a 3 yr old only?
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I see. I didn't know the term had been co-opted for that usage. Sorry.

    A Turing Machine is a computer that perfectly simulates human conversation and is hidden behind a curtain (or these days it could be via telephone) so no one knows that it's not a human. The point is philosophical: If you ask it any question you can think of, and the answer is indistinguishable from the answer you would get from a human... then does it matter that it's not human? Have we created a perfect artificial human?

    My point was that if gorillas or chimpanzees ever completely master ASL, so carrying on a conversation with one feels exactly like carrying on a conversation with a human, does it matter whether they "think" and "use language" exactly the same way we do? (Of course this requires the non-human apes to understand things that are way beyond the capacity of their relatively small brains so using a Turing Machine as an analogy isn't the best way to ask the question.)
    In terms of their use of language... I haven't kept up with the research papers so I can't give you a precise answer. Last time I checked, Koko (or Washoe, I don't remember which one) had a vocabulary of about 1,000 words. I've never worked with children but I'd estimate that to be at the 4-5 year-old level. (Remembering that ASL has no inflections so see/sees/saw/seen/seeing is only one word. This is the way humans count words although spell-checkers do it differently.

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    But in general it's difficult to compare the "maturity" of a non-human animal to a human. Of course primates are more similar to us than other mammals, and we assume that they think more like us than they do. But still, many animals don't have our elaborate time sense. Their concept of past-present-future is much more rudimentary than ours, which is key to our entire perception of the world.
  10. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    I don't think the comparison of an adult ape to a human child (of any age) is valid.
    The content of their thoughts, their concerns and attitudes and emotional responses, will be quite different. Even in an ape that's been removed from hir own society in infancy, and therefore missed the normal training and socializing s/he would require as a functioning ape, this is, at best, an artificially imposed childhood, not a biological one; in no way similar to the development of a human child growing up in human society.

    Another significant difference is that, in all of these experiments, it's the ape that must learn - and has learned - human conceptualization and expression, while the (much more intelligent and complex) human has not learned ape language. So, each of these experimental subjects, with a vocabulary of hundreds or a thousand, or whatever number of words, that's in their second or third language: often, they've already learned to understand spoken English (even if their physiology is unequipped to articulate the sounds) before learning ASL - that's either on top of their mother tongue, or instead of.
    To understand the language of real apes in the context of real ape life, ask Jane Goodall.

    I find it risible that humans are forever measuring and judging the intelligence of other species by how well those species can function in human engineered situations. Nobody asks how well a human would function, how clever a human would appear, if tested in a rat situation or a parrot challenge, or a baboon community. It seems to me, the dogs and chimps have already demonstrated a greater degree of adaptability and tolerance by the very act of attempting to understand our language.
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2012
  11. michael_taylor Registered Senior Member

    I think that needs clarification.

    "Turing machine" most properly refers to a specific computer architecture (the thing with the moving tape) and those devices which are mathematically equivalent in their working to that architecture. In more general sense it can just mean "general purpose computer".

    The scenario you're describing is a "Turing test" (the thing with messages from behind a curtain) , which is a method Alan Turing proposed of testing whether an artificial intelligence is functionally equivalent to a human mind, and may or may not have a Turing complete device as the foundation) .

    Judging by how often I see new ones, there are a surprising number of terms in the form of "Turing Something" in the fields of computer science and mathematics.
  12. michael_taylor Registered Senior Member

    I think apes can learn languages, but I don't think they can learn to think with more sophistication than their inherited potential, and so they can't use as complex languages as humans.

    From my reading of the subject, it seems like they could eventually get a vocabulary as large as ours, but have trouble saying words in the right order in all but simple sentences.

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