Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XVIII

I've always been amazed by the sometimes eerie ability of gorillas or chimpanzees (and sometimes whales) to learn how to use of language. However, it's important to remember what their limitations are:
During one of his journeys, Cohen met two of the stars of the ape-language world: the bonobo Kanzi and his half-sister, Panbanisha. He writes: ‘If they have language, I did not witness it. If a three-year-old human showed as little response to what I said, I would think the child had a hearing problem or was psychologically impaired.’

The 1960s and 70s were the heyday of ape-language research, but the field imploded in the 1980s after Columbia University researcher, Herbert Terrace, published the findings of his attempts to teach the chimp Nim Chimpsky American Sign Language (ASL). Not only did Terrace conclude that Nim was incapable of creating sentences; his team also analysed films of other high-profile ASL-using apes, including Washoe the chimp and Koko the gorilla, and decided that apes had a ‘severely restricted’ ability to learn more than ‘isolated symbols.’ There was no evidence of them being able to create sentences.

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