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Animal Cognition: Language is not only for humans?

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Language has long been considered to be available to humans only. And while some apes were considered to be close, there was no evidence of apes ability to exercise creativity and thinking to properly use language as a tool. However, recently some new studies showed that it might not be true that humans are the only ones who possess ability to use language:

Project by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, head scientist at the Great Ape Trust near Des Moines.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5503685

and follow up:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5541593

Here are some striking points (quoted from above articles):

Kanzi and Panbanisha understand thousands of words. They use sentences, talk on the phone, and they like to gossip. In short, they use language in many of the same ways humans do.

That's not supposed to be possible.

Nyota [ape] is even more integrated into human culture than his mother, Panbanisha[ape], or his uncle Kanzi[ape]. As part of the second generation of bonobos to grow up in a world that is both human and bonobo, Nyota's grasp of human language may become more sophisticated than has ever been seen in a bonobo.

This raises some question:

1. Do such apes gain rights?

There are already 'animal rights'. Those however cover mainly physical abuse. How about some more advance rights, like an ability to own a property?

2. How much would an ape need to be able to do/know to gain some new rights beyond usual animals right?

Imagine an inter-species intelligence test to determine one's ability to be moral, thus gaining rights that are otherwise not available to lower animals.

P.S.

"Kanzi's[ape]favorite movies when he was very young were Ice Man and Planet of the Apes," Savage-Rumbaugh[scientist] says.
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I don't think this is anything suprising. It's well known that animals can conduct learned behavior, but can they actually think? The results are certainly impressive, but they don't mention how many repititions it took to get them to "learn" something. Animals have memory, but they do not have the capacity for rationality.

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Some points in that article seem particularly relevant to the ability of morality in these apes. This one sentence struck me: "Panbanisha once used the symbol for "monster" when referring to a visitor who misbehaved." The article uses this as an example for the her creative use of language and symbols, but it also shows that Panbanisha understands what misbehaving means and that it's wrong at some level. Another point that I found interesting was Kanzi's apparent ability to empathize, a trait that I've always thought was uniquely human.

"I'm missing this finger," Fields says, holding up one of his hands. "One time when Kanzi was grooming my hand, when he got to where the missing finger is, he pretended like it was there. And then he used the keyboard, he uttered, 'Hurt?,' as though to say, 'Does it still hurt?' "

Whether Kanzi was asking if it still hurt, or if it did hurt at one point, he's showing that he understands that things can be painful to other creatures that aren't painful to him, and in this case it shows that he understands where that pain might have come from. Empathy is, I think, a key component of any moral code. Without any ability to empathize, would Rand's rationality behind the initiation of force be valid? As I understand it, her main point is that any person willing to initiate force against another is giving up his own rights by willingly violating another's, almost in an associative manner. If we did not have the ability to 'walk a mile in his shoes' and, instead, could only sympathize, would this associative property of morality work the same way? Perhaps I've just got everything muddled, but it's an interesting line of thought. :dough:

Part of this is also related to when/how we attribute rights to children. If the cognitive development of these bonobos is at the level of the average 5 year old human, shouldn't they have the same rights? Those may not be much, but it's something.

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I find it a lot more likely that the apes merely memorize signals and repeat them (reusing the combinations that are effective at elicting positive response from their handlers) and that their large capacity for aquired behavior is anthropomorphized by their handles - who want to believe.

You make a gesture and point to the ape saying "Kanzi", you make another gesture and point to a banana saying "banana". When the ape signs back "Kanzi banana" you take that as evidence of language. What the reports of these scientists surely leave out are the thousands of meaningless combinations they extracted their pearls from.

Kanzy toy banana Kanzi house hand food want friend Kanzi happy like banana Kanzi...

(a lot of successful combinations use the sign for the ape's name, the behavior will be repeated)

= My ape is a genius! It said it was happy when I was talking to it and then said it liked bananas.

mrocktor

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I don't think this is anything suprising. It's well known that animals can conduct learned behavior, but can they actually think? The results are certainly impressive, but they don't mention how many repititions it took to get them to "learn" something. Animals have memory, but they do not have the capacity for rationality.

How many repetitions does it take for a human child to learn a word and it's meaning? When does that 'learned behavior' change to 'thinking' or 'rationality'? Is there a way to tell the difference?

Fields says it was during a visit by a Swedish scientist named Par Segerdahl. Kanzi knew that Segerdahl was bringing bread. But Kanzi's keyboard had no symbol for Segerdahl the scientist. So he got the attention of Savage-Rumbaugh's sister, Liz, and began pointing to the symbols for "bread" and "pear," the fruit.

"Liz got it immediately," Fields says. "She says, 'What do you mean Kanzi? Are you talking about Par or pears to eat?' And he pointed over to Par."

Kanzi knew that the symbol for 'pear' meant the fruit, and yet used it to represent a similar sound, also connecting it with something else he associated with that sound, in a way he hadn't been taught. This seems to imply some level of abstract thought, not just a learned behavior. Why dismiss a rational capacity in animals out-of-hand without at least exploring the possibility further?

But linguists were skeptical. They said the sentence, "Throw the river in the Coke," might have produced the same response. They also said Kanzi might have been reacting to her body language, not her words.

Savage-Rumbaugh was determined to prove that Kanzi really did understand sentences. So she asked him to take a series of scientific language tests.

In one of the tests, which was videotaped, Savage-Rumbaugh wears a welder's mask so Kanzi can't see her face, and she makes no gestures. She asks Kanzi to perform dozens of unlikely tasks, like putting pine needles in the refrigerator. He understands nearly every request.

Mrocktor, I am wondering how you believe humans learn to speak, if it isn't by repeating memorized sounds that elicit favorable responses from their parents?

This is a paper with far more detail than the article, including some examples of the ape learning something after only a few repititions and then extended what (s)he had learned. The sections 'Beliefs about Good and Bad' (p12) and 'A Pan/Homo Debate: Sue and Panbanisha Disagree' (p13) are particularly interesting.

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My recommendation for anyone interested in the topic is to read the peer-reviewed scientific literature on ape language, and judge whether the factual claims are sufficiently well supported. The starting point should be the 1979 Seidenberg & Petitto paper "Signing behavior in apes: A critical review" (Cognition 7:177-215). Then read the subsequent pro-ape language papers in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, to see whether they have properly addressed these concerns. Me banana you banana you me you banana me banana banana, indeed.

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How many repetitions does it take for a human child to learn a word and it's meaning?

Please repeat the word "abajur" (ah bah JOO r) until you learn its meaning, then you tell me.

When does that 'learned behavior' change to 'thinking' or 'rationality'?

Do humans have aquired behavior (I only use "learned" in a context of knowlege) at all? Infants seem to go through a sensory stage (before they identify existents), through a perceptual stage (where they identify existents and react to them) and finally a conceptual stage where they form concepts by differentiating and integrating.

Is there a way to tell the difference?

There most certainly is. Human children don't string words together in meaningless phrases to see what works.

Kanzi knew that the symbol for 'pear' meant the fruit, and yet used it to represent a similar sound, also connecting it with something else he associated with that sound, in a way he hadn't been taught.

But did it know? Or did the reaserchers spend enough time with the ape that in the middle of a sequence of signs they isolated a sequence and interpreted meaning into it? Did the ape sign "pear" "bear" "snare" "chair" "hair" "flair" "dare" and triumphantly follow up with "tree" "knee" "free" clearly indicating it had isolated a sound? No, it probably signed "banana me you banana happy me want sit pear banana" and the avid researcher concluded the ape had intelligently repalced "chair" for "pear" in the phrase "I want to sit on a chair".

Why dismiss a rational capacity in animals out-of-hand without at least exploring the possibility further?

Lack of credible evidence.

mrocktor

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Human children don't string words together in meaningless phrases to see what works.
This is the point that I find so obvious, and so surprising that these monkey-people don't get. Language is not just stringing together words -- it has structure. People express specific propositions with language; there are structural rules for combination. In what way can these apes be said to have language? Only by redefining language as something vague like "a means of accomplishing something", in which case a lamp has a language becuse it has a means of sucking current out of the wall and producing light.
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As much as we all appreciate the well-reasoned thoughts involving bananas, I see no reason why a sentence such as 'banana you me banana' automatically implies a lack of intelligence. It is clear that apes can understand the differences between 'you' 'me' and 'banana', due to the various ways they use each word, even if they don't understand grammar. I have been unable to find the article you mentioned, DavidOdden, but Wikipedia contains an article on an experimental attempt to replicate the results gotten by Washoe (a chimpanzee). The results were not replicated, and the article suggests that the main problem was the inability for Nim Chimpski (also a chimpanzee) to grasp grammar. The results of that study are apparently contested, and seems to offer no evidence either way. The whole idea of language in apes seems to have the form of 'I want to believe it, so I will; I don't want to believe it, so I won't' without evidence clearly leading either way.

We probably don't know enough right now to be able to judge whether apes can be rational creatures. The scientific community seems to be split on this issue. I am somewhat more interested in what would happen if they are found to be rational. Would we grant them rights? I don't recall the Objectivist position on other forms of intelligent, rational life.

Edit/Addition:

From what little I know of how human children learn to speak, they start by creating meaningless sounds. At some point they'll start to repeat words that they've heard their parents say often, like 'Dada' in an effort to repeat 'Daddy'. Is it clear at that stage that the child knows 'Daddy' is that man over there? Or does it get associated because the child is handed to Daddy immediately after saying the word? Maybe it was associated before the child learned to repeat the word, because it would get repeated whenever Daddy was holding the kid. Language in a toddler rarely includes the grammar we use later in life. The cognizant level of these apes has been equated to a 5 year old. Do 5 year old children always get word order right?

Mrocktor, you apparently either didn't read the paper, or have dismissed it out-of-hand as non-credible without knowing if it is actually credible or not and consequently ignored everything stated within it. One section of the paper (mentioned earlier) discusses a recorded half-hour argument between one of the bonobos and one of the researchers. This video probably isn't available online, but the fact that they'll even say it exists is significant- if it doesn't exist, their paper will be absolutely worthless when their peers discover that, and if it does exist, it will provide clear evidence that the bonobo knows what she's saying and understands the researcher.

Some videos of the bonobos

Edited by miseleigh
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There are two separate question: first, whether apes have what could be called "intelligence", and second, whether they have language. There is no serious question about language: they do not. Whether or not behaviors of the form "You banana me banana banana me banana" constitute evidence of some form of intelligence is a separate issue. It is well known that fish have some level of intelligence. At the same time, there is the question of a qualitatively different kind of intelligence -- man has a particular unique kind of intelligence, which apes and fish lack.

There is no evidence that apes understand pronouns so they do not understand "you". They have learned to make associations between signs and actions, in the same way that other animals can make associations between actions and "Sit!", "Stay!", "No!", "Off!", and "Heel". (BTW Seidenberg & Petitto were involved with Terrace on the Nim project, and are justly famous for their part in the debunking of the ape claims). The whole idea of language in apes seems to have the form of 'I want to believe it, so I will'. Period.

The appeal to "we don't know enough right now" is an appeal to a pretty wicked epistemology. In fact we know plenty especially about the language issue. If you have some credible and well-controlled scientific evidence that suggests anything even vaguely resembling a capacity for language, please get it published so that we can see it.

The fundamental issue is, are apes volitional. The burden of proof is on you to give any evidence that they are. They cannot understand the consequences of their actions and cannot be held responsible for their actions -- when it comes to ape rights, that is the essential question.

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There are two separate question: first, whether apes have what could be called "intelligence", and second, whether they have language. There is no serious question about language: they do not. Whether or not behaviors of the form "You banana me banana banana me banana" constitute evidence of some form of intelligence is a separate issue. It is well known that fish have some level of intelligence. At the same time, there is the question of a qualitatively different kind of intelligence -- man has a particular unique kind of intelligence, which apes and fish lack.

There is no evidence that apes understand pronouns so they do not understand "you". They have learned to make associations between signs and actions, in the same way that other animals can make associations between actions and "Sit!", "Stay!", "No!", "Off!", and "Heel". (BTW Seidenberg & Petitto were involved with Terrace on the Nim project, and are justly famous for their part in the debunking of the ape claims). The whole idea of language in apes seems to have the form of 'I want to believe it, so I will'. Period.

The appeal to "we don't know enough right now" is an appeal to a pretty wicked epistemology. In fact we know plenty especially about the language issue. If you have some credible and well-controlled scientific evidence that suggests anything even vaguely resembling a capacity for language, please get it published so that we can see it.

The fundamental issue is, are apes volitional. The burden of proof is on you to give any evidence that they are. They cannot understand the consequences of their actions and cannot be held responsible for their actions -- when it comes to ape rights, that is the essential question.

I'm not even convinced that apes are conceptual even at lower level concrete concepts, and I have seen some of the studies. I think it is true that there is a continuum of behavioral function that might look like some animals might start to "get it", but they are so far away from anything that I would call conceptual that I would highly doubt that it's worth the discussion. My poodle is smart as hell, with a pretty big "vocabulary", but I don't mistake behavior learning for conceptualization. Once again testing Objectivism against the last 0.00000001% of the possible senarios. Rand addressed this, although I can't find the reference yet. But I believe it was along the lines of, "Any conceptual being should have volition. Metaphysics is the same regardless of species, but epistemology may vary a bit due to differing nature of consciousness, giving slightly different ethics." While its interesting to think about coexistence of two conceptual species, I'm not sure what good it does you, nor what it tells you about Objectivism's validity. Cute thought experiment, but not very useful.

I'd rather spend my time doing this!!!

Justiniano_6830.jpg

Edited by KendallJ
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I'm not even convinced that apes are conceptual even at lower level concrete concepts, and I have seen some of the studies.
Yeah, I hear you. I don't want to be too specific, but I did bug a person who is a top specialist on animal-cog, my question being directed specifically at the essence of the notion "concept", and could not get any reply. The only thing worse than overt hostility from academicians is covert hostility. So for example, there is apparently no experimental evidence that any animal can grasp the concept "behind" or "between" (given a three-way physical continuum).
I think it is true that there is a continuum of behavioral function that might look like some animals might start to "get it", but they are so far away from anything that I would call conceptual that I would highly doubt that it's worth the discussion.
Professionally speaking, as a self defense matter it is always worth the discussion, though never worth elevating the arbitrary or even probably false to the status of the true. The root problem clearly is that most people don't even understand what a "concept" is. A concept is not behavior, for christ's sake!
I'd rather spend my time doing this!!!

Justiniano_6830.jpg

Dude! So you like jumping over low hurdles? Kewl! :P
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Dude! So you like jumping over low hurdles? Kewl! :P

That is a "broad jump". Apologies for the big pic. Forgot to resize and now can't seem to edit. This is the "hurdle".

Justiniano_6718.jpg

Edited by KendallJ
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Edit/Addition:

From what little I know of how human children learn to speak, they start by creating meaningless sounds. At some point they'll start to repeat words that they've heard their parents say often, like 'Dada' in an effort to repeat 'Daddy'. Is it clear at that stage that the child knows 'Daddy' is that man over there? Or does it get associated because the child is handed to Daddy immediately after saying the word? Maybe it was associated before the child learned to repeat the word, because it would get repeated whenever Daddy was holding the kid. Language in a toddler rarely includes the grammar we use later in life. The cognizant level of these apes has been equated to a 5 year old. Do 5 year old children always get word order right?

I think in one of the articles The New Left Rand discusses this (I think in The Comprachicos?), and if I remember it correctly she was saying there that a child doesn't have nearly complete control over their conceptual faculty at the age of 5. I think at this age they are still mainly on the perceptual level, and the children are only just starting to learn how to think properly, so to speak.

So even if this were true, I do not not think that the fact alone that you can make this comparison proves anything about a rational faculty. Seeing how human children go through the sensational and perceptual phases before learning to use concepts makes it clear to me that comparing adult animals to children and then saying they should also have rights extremely silly. It would be like saying that bonobo's should have rights because they are able to grasp more than the mental retard in the insitution. But rights are not derived from these broken units...

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The fundamental issue is, are apes volitional. The burden of proof is on you to give any evidence that they are. They cannot understand the consequences of their actions and cannot be held responsible for their actions -- when it comes to ape rights, that is the essential question.

What level of understanding consequences of actions is required? There is nothing intrinsicly unique about human intelligence or decision-making ability. It would seem rather self-important to say that ANY species below the human average intelligence has no rights. For one thing, it is concievable that there exists a species whose average intelligence is far superior to ours. We would be loath to say that the superior species should regard humans as possessing no rights.

Thus it becomes a question of where the line should be drawn. And based on what seems to have been in contention in this thread, there is no bright conceptual line in the first place. The division line between rights/no rights seems very vague indeed.

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Perhaps in one sense it is, but almost everyone can see the difference between the different types of animals and the different types of their intelligence; the line can be drawn. It may be a lot more difficult to objectively word this, just like it took humanity quite a long time to come to state other things explicitly for the first time. But this should not mean that because it is hard to see the difference we should therefore give other cases the benefit of the doubt. The consequences of this decision are quite far-reaching and it should be up to the proponents of this theory to prove that it is true.

As long as it remains unclear that animals have a conceptual faculty that functions similar to the one humans do, and we are sure they can understand all the underlying concepts involved in having rights we should not give them rights. Lack of knowledge is not a good reason to base decisions on, and the burden of proof should be on those trying to prove that animals have rights, not on those who think they do not.

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I think at this age they are still mainly on the perceptual level, and the children are only just starting to learn how to think properly, so to speak.

...Seeing how human children go through the sensational and perceptual phases before learning to use concepts makes it clear to me that comparing adult animals to children and then saying they should also have rights extremely silly.

My comparison to a 5 year old was intended to point out that there doesn't seem to be much difference in the way apes and children learn language. If they learn in similar ways, perhaps an ape could reach that conceptual level with proper teaching.

Are 'yesterday', 'today' and 'tomorrow' concepts? What is the definition of a concept?

As long as it remains unclear that animals have a conceptual faculty that functions similar to the one humans do, and we are sure they can understand all the underlying concepts involved in having rights we should not give them rights. Lack of knowledge is not a good reason to base decisions on, and the burden of proof should be on those trying to prove that animals have rights, not on those who think they do not.

I haven't said that we should give apes rights because we don't know yet. I meant to say that we don't know yet, and therefore we shouldn't make assumptions and then give up trying to find out. I agree that apes shouldn't have rights until we actually know they deserve them, and of course the burden of proof is on the positive. I think I'm just confused about the line between conceptual and non-conceptual, and how we would tell the difference between understanding and repetition. If the paper and videos I linked to earlier are to be believed, the bonobos know when they want something, know how to ask for it, remember if the promise was broken, get upset about that promise being broken, understand the ideas of past vs. future, and can accept consequences of their actions.

Edit: clarity

Edited by miseleigh
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Ah, sorry about implying that such was your position. I was mainly adding those things in a more general manner :(

But yes, it's certainly an interesting subject of research, but care should be taken that they are actually using the right epistemological methods to acquire their data... In some areas of science it is not uncommon for scientists to use very flawed ways of experimenting.. :(

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What level of understanding consequences of actions is required? There is nothing intrinsicly unique about human intelligence or decision-making ability.
I agree that there is nothing intrinsic about it: what is unique about human intelligence and decision-making ability is an objective fact. It is the ability to think conceptually, which enables man for formulate general principles such as the prohibition against murder. It is the ability to reason: to apply logic to facts and reach a conclusion which conceptual thinking enables, seeing that this fact is analogous to that and therefore this conclusion is analogous to that. It is the ability to grasp the concept of causality, e.g. if you shoot that man he will die. It is volition -- the ability to chose action, rather than act in a metaphysically given way. There are no animals on earth other than man which have any of these abilities. The line is extremely bright: can you take responsibility for your actions? Can you respect the rights of others?
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I haven't said that we should give apes rights because we don't know yet. I meant to say that we don't know yet, and therefore we shouldn't make assumptions and then give up trying to find out. I agree that apes shouldn't have rights until we actually know they deserve them, and of course the burden of proof is on the positive. I think I'm just confused about the line between conceptual and non-conceptual, and how we would tell the difference between understanding and repetition. If the paper and videos I linked to earlier are to be believed, the bonobos know when they want something, know how to ask for it, remember if the promise was broken, get upset about that promise being broken, understand the ideas of past vs. future, and can accept consequences of their actions.

Edit: clarity

Well said. The understanding you desire then is essentially one of discussion and understanding of epistemology. ITOE has several references to Rand's discussion specifically as it relates to animals. I'll pull some references when I'm home again. One last night about generalization in animals vs. conceptual beings.

For contrast, my dog knows how to do all of those things you mention, and as for "getting upset", anxiety is a strong behavior modifier, that is directly biochemical. The behaviours you describe can be learned with just a perceptual consciousness. Yes, animals can generalize, and learn responded behavior, but that is still not conceptualization.

I haven't had time to look at your videos and papers, but some offhand thoughts on experiments or observations:

a. is the animal able to port a "concept" to a new situation, a context it was not taught, and that cannot be linked to any sort of immediate behavioral learning methods or biochemical explanations for its development?

b. Can the animal teach the concept?

c. Does the concept sustain itself in the animals natural social setting (i.e. not require man's continual intervention to teach and maintain it)?

d. Does the animal use metaphor (complex example of a.)

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