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20200802 – Why Chimpanzees cannot learn language




The main idea of this book is to use author’s experience with Project Nim of teaching chimpanzee to use human language in order to present author’s views on development and use of language. Author stresses his believe that this development was natural evolutionary process, that it occurred as result of need in effective communication tool for complex scavenging support, that words came first and grammar much later, and, finally, that animals, even such close relatives as chimpanzees do not have such tools.  


Here author describes why and how he wrote this book and defines its topic as language evolution. He refers to ideas of Chomsky and his own participation in debates on the side of behaviorists. He also describes his William Schoff lectures that are the foundation of this book.  

The prologue is about author’s experiment (Project Nim) of teaching language to the chimp, how he come to start this project and two main contentions that rose in regard of language evolution: words vs. grammar as key foundational component of language and communications tool vs. mechanism of thinking as most important driver of evolution.

  1. Numberless Gradations

This chapter starts with brief discussion of evolution as the main tool for understanding everything in biology, which author applies to language, but not that much to its grammar, as to its words as key ingredient. After that author moves to discuss his background as behaviorist and reviews ideas of instrumental conditioning, presenting a nice table of examples:

He also discusses in some details Chomsky’s critique of verbal behavior, which pretty much moved author away from pure behaviorism and his search for empirical confirmation that starting in 1960s turned him to attempt to teach chimpanseses to use language. Author also looks at evolutionary processes and controversy caused by its requirements to have long incremental process withmeaningful improvements on each increment, which seems to be inconsistent with reals speed of human development. The author review of the newest paleoanthropological data led him to conclusions that: “In sum, there are at least three reasons to consider why recent hominin ancestors provide a more realistic baseline than chimpanzees for clues about the evolution of language: bipedalism, a large brain, and a small birth canal. Although none of these differences were selected to enhance linguistic ability, the need to cradle a human infant for six months led to profound changes in maternal care.”  In support of this idea author provides review of the development of nonverbal language during the first years of human life.

2. Ape Language

In this chapter author reviews in details experiments with teaching chimps to use language by trying to raise them as human children, sometime using sign language because chimps could not imitate human sounds. Author discusses his own “Project Nim” and Premack method, which uses graphic symbols. The key conclusion that author makes are based on these data:” Ape language projects have shown that chimpanzees can learn the imperative function of symbols (that is, how to use them to obtain rewards). Although children learn to use words as imperatives, imperatives are only a tiny portion of their vocabulary. Language would never develop if children were limited to learning imperatives. In that sense, the failure of these projects can be attributed to an ape’s inability to learn that things have names and that words can be used conversationally.”

3. Recent Human Ancestors and the Possible Origin of Words

Author starts this chapter with discussion of non-linearity of evolution that, contrary to Darwin believes, quite convincingly proved by recent paleoanthropological discoveries demonstrating parallel development of multiple hominin species. He then discusses fossils in some details: locations where they are found, dating methods, how changes in fossils relate to corresponding climate changes, and how increase in functional abilities of the human brain provided for much more efficient accommodation to these changes, eventually resulting in human expansion all over the world. After discussing usefulness of the big brain, author moves to hypotheticals of language development. Based on fossils that have traces of human scavenging evolution from being the last to being the first consumers of big animal’s corpse author believes that such activities necessitated development of worlds to communicate to others what and where was found and in what condition it currently is, so they could help with processing.  

4. Before an Infant Learns to Speak

Here author moves from species evolution to individual, discussing how infants acquire human communication abilities: first by imitating visual and/or audio communications, including human emotions and attitudes, eventually resulting in joint attention functionality unique to humans. It results in need for words to generate joint attention to something that is not present at the moment and later on to abstractions that exist only in human imagination and are communicated via language.

5. The Origin of Language, Words in Particular

Here author moves more into origin of language and how humans pick it up from parents and other around them: “The difference between animal and human communication is also reflected in the number of signals they each produce. In animals, that number rarely exceeds twenty and it does not vary with age. Human vocabulary grows with age during the first few decades of a person’s life. A two-year-old child knows approximately 300 words; a five-year-old approximately 5,000; a minimally educated adult at least 15,000; and a college graduate at least 50,000 words.” Author then discusses Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, which he generally supports except for putting much more weight on words, their creation and use. Author then reviews various relevant to his research schools and experiments.


This is pretty much discussion of popularization of author’s Project Nim, which left him not very satisfied, especially about documentary by Marsh.   


I am pretty much in agreement with main position of this book except for some relatively small points. I do not think that debate between what came first words or grammar makes lots of sense. I think they came in parallel. I also somewhat puzzled by controversy about liner or parallel evolution of human brains because it seems obvious that it should be both: initially with human expansion with evolutionary modifications into multiple variations of hominin living in different localities with consequent pruning out less competitive sub-species by the more effective ones, and since they all rely on the same ecological niches and were capable expand globally, the most effective – we humans, eliminated everybody else some hundreds of thousands years ago and we still continue eliminating different parts of ourselves, albeit somewhat less frequently in more recent times. I, however, hope that with advance of technology, productivity, and AI, plus clear movement of changing meaning of live from multiplication to enjoyment, we’ll find equilibrium between all types of us and between us and environment that would make our lives worth living.

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