I Think I'm Sophisticated 'Cause I'm Living My Life Like a Good Homo Sapien

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This is the coolest, strangest science experiment I've read about in a while—and not just because it sounds like something out of a Charlie Kaufman movie.

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  1. And the Great Ape Trust is privately funded too.

  2. Excellent! I always wished I could do something similar with those chimpanzees and gorillas who had been taught to converse in sign language, but I lack the necessary millions of dollars. I hope this works out.

  3. I can’t help but wonder if pooh covered appliances and smashed screens won’t be the immediate outcome. Cool idea, though.

  4. Isn’t this how Return to the Planet of the Apes, or one of those PotA movies, has the apes turning into our overlords eventually?

  5. If you want to find a human-like creature that exists in a completely natural state … that creature is the bonobo.

    What, exactly, does “natural state” mean?

    Some dipshits seem unable to grasp that humans are so far the greatest evolutionary achievement so far, and not some alien being that decided to settle here. Human culture is a product of nature too.

  6. I love the Kinks reference.

  7. ‘If the apes are able to learn language, music and art, once thought to be distinct to humans, then “it strongly suggests that those things are not innate in us,” she said.’

    Not a chance in hell but it’s a nice, fanciful idea and always gets great media attention.

    Not only have studies shown over and over again that what apes learn is not “language”, but also her conclusion that ‘if apes can learn then these things aren’t innate for humans’ makes no logical sense whatsoever. As Chomsky noted, humans can learn to fly up to 30 feet in the long jump; that has no bearing whatsoever on how innate tree-sailing is for flying squirrels.

    http://www.kenanmalik.com/work_in_progress/archive/man_and_beast_03.html

    Steven Pinker fans will probably recall that he soundly criticized Savage-Rumbaugh’s scientific and reporting methodologies as well.

  8. “suggests that those things are not innate in us”

    In other words, trying to prove the “blank slate” theory that underlies Marxist thought.

    I can’t wait until the Reptilocrats relize a grant was just issued to a huge display of the most sexually frisky primates on the planet.

    I wonder if we can get Ashcroft and Santorum to tour before they hear about it. I want to see the looks on thier faces.

  9. Whatever, I still think this is really cool.

    But the big question is, will they ever learn the secret of fire?

    Song of the great ape from Walt Disney’s Jungle Book

    Now I’m the king of the swingers
    Oh, the jungle VIP
    I’ve reached the top and I’ve had to stop
    And that’s what botherin’ me

    I wanna be a man, man-cub
    And stroll right into town
    And be just like the other men
    I’m tired of monkeyin’ around!

    Oh, oo-oo-oo!
    I wanna be like you-oo-oo
    I wanna walk like you
    Talk like you
    Oo-oo-oo!
    You’ll see it’s true-oo-oo
    An ape like me-ee-ee
    Can learn to be hu-oo-oo-man too-oo-oo!

    Now don’t try to kid me, man-cub
    I made a deal with you
    What I desire is man’s red fire
    To make my dreams come true!

    Give me the secret, man-cub
    Clue me what to do
    Give me the power of man’s red flower
    So I can be like you!

    Oh, oo-oo-oo!
    I wanna be like you-oo-oo
    I wanna walk like you
    Talk like you
    Oo-oo-oo!
    You’ll see it’s true-oo-oo
    An ape like me-ee-ee
    Can learn to be hu-oo-oo-man too-oo-oo!

  10. Well, I for one welcome our new ape overlords.

  11. Linguist-
    Apes HAVE been taught language. Carl Sagan wrote on this at length in his book “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence.” Chimpanzees and gorillas, using sign language, have been able to “speak” with a vocabulary roughly equivalent to that of a four- or five-year-old human. They were able to learn basic grammar and syntax (say, distinguishing between “Jennifer tickle ape” and “ape tickle Jennifer”), able to recognize incorrect grammar and syntax, and even able to invent new words when necessary (as when one chimpanzee, seeing a watermelon for the first time, called it a “drink fruit”). Certainly their linguistic skills were primitive by human standards, but they CAN acquire them. What I’m interested in knowing is, will two ape parents who know sign language teach it to their children?

  12. Great, in ten years we’ll have some dopey Senator wanting to know why young bonobos are smoking dope and having premarital sex and another Congressman launching an inquiry as to why so many bonobos are overweight and how it compares with the incidence of drinking banana daiquiris.

    On the upside, now that Pope Bennie has a new mohair suit maybe he can find a few more jets. If bonobos can be jets but I suppose ape sins aren’t sufficiently original.

  13. see link you

    bad dirty toilet man cast doubt master grammar me

    but Koko gorilla observed teach kitten sign language try

    you me watch MXC Spike TV now

  14. Transcript of an Internet chat with Koko the gorilla here (not a joke):

    http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Vines/4451/KokoLiveChat.html

    A fairly long conversation. Her attention wanders a bit, but not once does she stoop to comparing anyone to Hitler. (A toilet, but not Hitler.)

  15. Jennifer:

    Steven Pinker in “The Language Instinct” roundly criticizes Sagan’s conclusions about what was being accomplished in those ape studies. They learn to mime for fruit.

  16. Jason-
    I hadn’t heard of Pinker before this, and searching for him on the Net produced only a few quotes. What were his objections to the conclusions of Sagan and others that the gorillas had developed language? I found one quote where he criticized the gorillas for lacking a system of grammar, but reports indicate that they did have a simple one, though certainly with nothing so sophisticated as verb conjugations and such. Why does Pinker not believe gorillas capable of learning and using at least rudimentary language?

  17. It’s evidently designed by a doll-house person and a computer-geek person.

    The apes will be determined to be insane pretty quickly, and they will actually be insane.

  18. I still think that growing crystals in a mason jar is cooler.

  19. The apes will be determined to be insane pretty quickly, and they will actually be insane.

    Sadly, I think this is quite possible.

  20. “Those are things that we have created, and create anew and build upon from one generation to the next …” she said. “Then we have the power to change it and make it any other way. We could have an ideal world, if we but learn how to do it.”

    If we could only learn to communicate and create like those monkeys, we’d be golden! I dig the experiment, but I’m not loving the anthropophobic sentiment.

  21. tomwright: In other words, trying to prove the “blank slate” theory that underlies Marxist thought.

    What on earth is objectionable to this? Do you have a problem with scientific experimentation? I don’t think we have conclusively decided one way or the other on the blank slate question, and I welcome new research into an interesting scientific/philosophical problem.

  22. Some dipshits seem unable to grasp that humans are so far the greatest evolutionary achievement so far, and not some alien being that decided to settle here.

    Um . . . it stands to reason that all species currently inhabiting the planet are pretty remarkable evolutionary achievements; if they weren’t, they’d be extinct.

    Sharks and crocodiles precede us evolutionarily by several tens of millions of years, and not only are they still around, they’re thriving. I’d say that’s a great evolutionary achievement.

  23. Ray Davies, the Kinks. Someone owes me a banana.

  24. I still think that growing crystals in a mason jar is cooler.

    But not as cool as a dinosaur diorama!

    I was bummed when they stopped accepted those as science fair experiments just because, technically, they weren’t experiments.

  25. Oops, give the banana to db.

  26. “ape tickle Jennifer”

    Nim dirty think

  27. though certainly with nothing so sophisticated as verb conjugations and such

    One of my favorite languages doesn’t conjugate verbs either but then Pu tong hua does have an elegant simplicity once you get used to it. Language seems to evolve like anything else and the characterization “survival of the fittest” is somewhat misleading inasmuch as anything that is good enough to plug the hole will do.

  28. Phil,

    Crocodiles just don’t seem to be able to jump high enough to walk on the moon.

    I said greatest, not most remarkable, etc. We inhabit the top of the evolutionary chain. Care to debate that?

  29. “Tickle” was the example used in the book.

  30. I’m sure you know this already, kmw, but just to let the teenagers who sometimes visit the board know, evolution is not linear, so there is no “chain” or “ladder” of evolution. The most successful organisms from an evolutionary standpoint are those that are best able to occupy ecological niches. We humans are unique on this planet in our ability to change many different environments to make them more comfortable to us.

    What do you mean by “greatest”? The most intelligent? We probably are–it depends what you mean by “intelligent.” The most technological? For this galaxy, we almost certainly are. We can’t be sure of the rest of the universe, because everything is so far.

  31. By greatest, I mean the darwinian most fit to survive. We bend anything and everything to our whims. Nothing else on this planet can make that claim.

    I don’t mean greatest by most elegant, or most judicious, or anything like that. We are warring conquerors, for better or for worse. We are the most unlikely multicelled creature to face extinction.

  32. We inhabit the top of the evolutionary chain. Care to debate that?

    Sure: First of all, chains don’t have tops. So I’m sure you meant to say “ladder” or “pyramid.” Second, there is no evolutionary ladder or pyramid. It isn’t a contest, and doesn’t have goals. It’s just a process.

    There. End of debate.

    By greatest, I mean the darwinian most fit to survive.

    Again, there’s no such thing as “the darwinian most fit to survive,” not in the sense you’re using it here. Creatures that aren’t fit to survive are extinct.

  33. Hmm, I see this is getting nowhere.

    My point is that we have evolved to the point that we control everything else that has also evolved.

    So how about “most dominant species?” Does that describe it adequately for you?

  34. we have evolved to the point that we control everything else that has also evolved.

    There is no control over HIV, ebola, ants, cockroaches, ad infinitum. I think the roaches are dominant in that they will probably be around long after the last human is nothing more than a fossil. Then there might be a parasite that lives off the roaches that turns out to rule the roost in the end.

    Your description is adequate for me, I just think it’s wrong.

  35. “If the apes are able to learn language, music and art, once thought to be distinct to humans, then “it strongly suggests that those things are not innate in us,”

    linguist at 04:36 PM:

    Not a chance in hell but it’s a nice, fanciful idea and always gets great media attention.

    Maybe she got the “innate” part wrong, but don’t be so sure about the rest. This is what experiments are for. It’s not an out of hand conjecture since we and the bonobo probably do share a close common primate ancestor.

    And cheer up linguist, perhaps you’ll have a new language or dialect to study. 😉

  36. There is no control over HIV, ebola, ants, cockroaches, ad infinitum. I think the roaches are dominant in that they will probably be around long after the last human is nothing more than a fossil. Then there might be a parasite that lives off the roaches that turns out to rule the roost in the end.

    Your description is adequate for me, I just think it’s wrong.

    I figured this dicussion would end up on that canard.

    We could rid the world of AIDS, ebola, any insect or parasite if we wanted. It’s just that bleeding hearts and most morality codes wouldn’t allow the collateral damage.

    Don’t confuse the inability to do something with the deliberate decision not to it unless it’s humane.

    So I think you’re wrong. And I can piss farther than you can.

  37. Hey, speaking of the Kinks reference, there’s a good New Wave song (circa 1981) by Pete Shelley called “Homosapien”. Although part of the lyrics are Gay oriented (not implying anything negative), I always thought that it would be a great song to be used in a “rally for the humans” scene in sci-fi movie where robots or androids have taken over. Listen to it if you can. Maybe you’ll agree with me.

    http://www.musicsonglyrics.com/P/peteshelleylyrics/peteshelleyhomosapienlyrics.htm

    (Any movie people: just email me to discuss further idea development.)

  38. Do you have a problem with scientific experimentation? I don’t think we have conclusively decided one way or the other on the blank slate question, and I welcome new research into an interesting scientific/philosophical problem.

    Ron —

    I disagree. As with Genesis science, the reason there is still a debate over the tabula rasa theory is its great appeal to various religious and ideological orthodoxies, not its appeal to a significant number of people in any field who have seriously pursued a (not conclusion-driven) curiosity about the human condition. Going further, I would hesitate to call the tabula rasa position a “theory”, since I’m not aware of any explanation of how a perceptual-cognitive-learning system might work even in principle, without prior conditions for filtering input and for structuring and preserving representations. (Note that I’m not disparaging the idea that we could be substantially reprogrammed after the fact, but, after all, the nature of our desires for reprogramming would itself be constrained by our prior structure.)

    The real problem with this bonobo woman, however, is the absurd conclusions she would draw from a positive result. What she’s claiming is basically this: that if creatures who we know are close genetic cousins can be trained to perform at a very rudimentary level a type of skill that we acquire to a high degree without being explicitly taught, then it follows that genetics plays no significant role in our capacity, and that consequently we should be inspired toward views of societal progress that require radically different human behavior from what we witness today. This connection is just flat-out batshit crazy. We already have lots of evidence that animals can be trained to perform cognitive tasks that they don’t do in the wild — they’re called circuses. And we already have fairly sophisticated social relationships with several domestic species. So why should basic simian semiotics occupy such a privileged theoretical position? And on what basis do we isolate “culture” from the totality of what we are, as if it were imposed from without? (From where?) Our cultures have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with our genetic structures — they didn’t get invented by scratch after we found ourselves dropped in a jungle with this type of brain!

    And moreover, if we were to be highly reprogrammable, it could only be initiated by, well, us. Even if cultural reprogramming had vastly wider genetic constraints than I believe it has, we could still not escape the predictions of public choice theory when it comes to the decisions of the programmers.

    Regarding the point initially raised by kmw, it does seem reasonable to say that we are among the most evolutionarily fit muticellular species (although the claim would be substantially strengthened by excluding insects), not, of course, in the sense that past fitness has any identifiable value apart from what has actually survived, but in the sense that we can reasonably predict the continuation of our genetic patterns to be much more likely than those of most other animal and plant species; furthermore, many of the others most likely to continue (e.g., rats, cats) are very highly adapted to life amongst us. Hell, it’s only us, and that which we might bring along, with any measurable chance of surviving the utter destruction of Earth, and that’s gotta be saying something.

  39. I got excited for a second, I thought I was reading something about the GOP. Well, I guess somebody will do a study on them someday.

  40. I’m not very convinced we could eliminate all species of cochroaches without destroying most life on land (including humans). AIDS, yes, I think we can eliminate that in time. We already have a very good handle on ebola (contamination is easy to prevent, and infected individuals have the tendency to just die). I’m uncertain exactly what dominant means, though. Most important? Most powerful? Depending on the definitions here, we’re neither of these things. I firmly believe we’re the most intelligent, though.

  41. I just read some of the Koko live chat. It’s less than impressive to say the least. While Koko’s abilities are surely amazing, they don’t approach real speech, as supporters claim. Gorillas are smart–probably in the top ten species on the planet, but their intelligence is not human-like. Claiming that it is is just idiotic.

  42. Lucas-
    Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re not. That’s one of the things this experiment will hopefully determine. Most of the evidence so far seems to suggest that they are capable of learning at least SOME level of symbolic language, though they’re still a long way away from writing Hamlet.

  43. Well – maybe they could READ it, though. I read (past tense) it, and even understood some of it. If a bunch of them were given typewriters and an infinite amount of time…nah. I read (present tense) this crap, too, but I don’t think I understand all of it.

    I just have fun seeing what you intellegent people are talking about, and appreciate the fact that I can listen in without permission.

  44. Jennifer:

    I read The Language Instinct a few years ago and The Blank Slate more recently, both have bits critical of gorilla language.

    His arguments come from several angles, but mostly he does not not see language in the ability to hold up one finger and receive one banana. He, like Chomsky, believes that language is a set of evolved mental structures and not a vocabulary. He would argue, for example, that absent any words, Homo sapiens sapiens still have a language. He calls it ‘mentalese’. It is the organization of concepts into buckets. These buckets and their relationships to each other ARE language. He would raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that his criticisms about the absence of a grammar instinct are nit picky. Grammar as an instinct is nothing less than mental organization that makes language possible.

    Pinker argues that you don’t have language without these structures(even if you have some associative symbols you learned in Pavlovian ways), and even if you don’t have any vocabulary, these presence of these mental structures mean you are using language with yourself when you think.

    From an evolutionary standpoint, he thinks the search for language capacity in apes is a bit misguided. He has commented that

    “Expecting other great apes to possess some form of these capabilities, he argues, is as absurd as expecting the guinea pig-like hyrax, the elephant’s closest living relative, to possess a primitive form of the elephant’s trunk.” – noted in Cal Tech researcher Bob Kopp’s paper here: http://www.gps.caltech.edu/~rkopp/collegepapers/chimps.html

    I really need to learn how to activate links. I’ve been commenting for years and never bothered. Anyway, that is my best summary of Pinker on apes. I HIGHLY recommend “The Language Instinct” and “The Blank Slate”. If you are really ambitious, his opus is “How the Mind Works”, which I have been chewing on for a couple of years.

  45. “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times?!”

  46. These chimps will be living in a highly artificial environment, which will make it tough to draw any meaningful conclusions.

    On the other hand, the Reality TV possibilities are endless.

  47. RC Dean,

    That’s an interesting point, but do you think that it renders the whole experiment worthless?

  48. I doubt even the vilest, most poop-flingingest monkey on the planet will be able to out-Paris Paris Hilton.

  49. …Meanwhile, I wonder who’s watching the watchers. Someone should be studying the humans, too, to see how they interpret and influence ape behavior. Do they induce the outcome they want, etc.?
    I realize that no harm to the apes is intended, but for some reason this brought to my mind the famous Stanley Milgram’s electric shock obedience studies.
    The apes are in a rather unnatural environment, so whatever is learned must be extrapolated when applied to a more natural environment. The extrapolation process almost always introduces errors, and it can be difficult to be objective about those errors.

  50. Ron:

    What J. Goard said.

  51. Don’t confuse the inability to do something with the deliberate decision not to it unless it’s humane.

    Don’t confuse destruction with control and who mentioned anything about a forward mounted horizontal stabilizer? At least one can control a canard but a living being is somewhat different in that you can confine it and regulate its diet among other things but sooner or later it’s going to do something you neither request nor desire. I’m guessing you don’t believe in chaos theory and no, control isn’t being able to tell the future either.

  52. I really need to learn how to activate links

    <a href=”url goes here“>words words words</a>

  53. “Tickle” was the example used in the book.

    Nim know/ Nim too read that/ dirty Nim dirty dirty/ Nim harmless/ Nim no offend Jennifer want

  54. Koko —

    Gertrude Stein called. She wants her style back.

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