Chatting with Monkeys

What makes us human, and what makes a chimp a chimp? In this discussion, visitors to our web site had the chance to ask two researchers who have studied our simian relatives about the similarities and differences between the species.

Friday’s Question:
“Do monkeys really understand the human language? What about sign language?”

—Makenna Anderson, a student in Mountain View, California

William Fields

In my view, some apes do have human-like language.

In our colony we have four bonobos with language and three without. The difference is dramatically evident, even to a nonscientist. Matata, a wild-caught bonobo, who had lexigram training for years, is without human language skill as far as I am able to detect; however, Kanzi does have language. He was not trained. Kanzi grew up in a world of humans and bonobos and spontaneously acquired language. If you were in the presence of Kanzi you could talk to him and he would talk back on his lexigram keyboard. “The simplicity of this fact is its significance.” However, as Stephen Pinker would say, “If you have to be there, it is not science.” So answering your question in terms of science, one must ask, what is language? And, how does one scientifically measure language?

[One panel of the 3 panel lexigram keyboard used by Kanzi]

The blog is a world where subjective reports of tangible ape-living offer more insight and interests to the reader than scientific discussions of receptive competence, amodal completion, associative symmetry, match to sample, theory of mind, or neuroanatomical asymmetries. And theoretical discussions of respondents, operants, and emergents will cause the average reader to look elsewhere.

Discussions of empirical interpretations of scientific measurements are types of reporting. Anecdotal subjective reports are another. Both have their place. I am interested in the legitimate value of both.

Subjective reporting deserves context to understand its value.

Reporting informally on the lives of bonobo Kanzi and his family, in my view, is justified in casual conversation. While the everyday tangible behavior between humans and bonobos using lexigrams together may or may not qualify as a language-event fact because we have not measured that specific exchange under test conditions, the contextual evidence and the attendant scientific literature related to this population of captive apes suggests that what they are able to do in test situations is not substantially different from what they are able to do in their everyday living. And we do not turn our lexigram keyboards off when the tests are over. My suspicion that Panbanisha may possess a sense of right and wrong within a moral context is not presented as scientific evidence, but as a position of openness to the possibility that she may be a morally competent individual based upon her utterances which are social utterances produced through the same kinds of communicative devices that have been used, measured, and reported upon in the scientific research of Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh.

Now, moving beyond my positive view of ape language, let us ask again, do apes really have language? Why don’t you decide. Keeping in mind that the answer will satisfy you, if and only if, your notions of the design features of language are satisfied. Here is the science regarding the question. You can measure these abilities against your definition of language.

Some apes in the research have demonstrated the ability to:

1. Point to a symbol reliably and consistently in appropriate communicative ways under test conditions within an array of 256 symbols in the turn-taking style that characterizes human conversations. (Some critics don’t believe apes point or point with joint attention.)

2. Sort objects into categories and to sort symbols into symbols under test conditions.

3. Comprehend spoken English under test conditions (receptive competence for spoken English, 660 novel sentences).

4. Match English words to pictures under test conditions.

5. Match symbols to pictures under test conditions.

6. Match English words to symbols under test conditions.

7. Match pictures to symbols under test conditions.

8. Reliably use lexigrams productively and receptively with other apes under test conditions.

9. Use symbols with semanticity, syntax, and grammar under test conditions.

10. Label pictures with lexigrams and quantities with numerals under test conditions.

11. Acquire receptive vocabulary spontaneously.

12. Label objects represented by novel line drawings under test conditions.

13. Refer to objects and events not present under test conditions.

14. Plan and travel in complex natural environment based upon the reception of symbolic information under test conditions.

15. Communicate information about object location displaced in time to naive third parties under test conditions.

16. Make stone tools by bimanual percussion and use those tools for cutting as documented on film. (One has to theoretically believe there is a relationship between certain types of tools and language to understand the power of this dimension.)

17. Scribe lexigrams using chalk as a communicative event as documented on film.

…just to mention a few things our apes have been documented to do.

So speaking of the same and similar abilities in nontest conditions seems reasonable. I have done this in my blog report of my communications with the apes. Considering the nearly 500 publications and thousands of hours of videotape that embody this science, there seems to be a justification for speaking informally about the competencies of our population of apes.

I would argue the skeptics of ape language have much work to do before they offer an opinion. Authentic engagement of the literature would be an excellent start. Do you know how long it takes to read 500 scientific publications? And it is important to note that the scientific corpus of Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh is composed of important studies that are neither isolated nor terminal. The work informs larger theory with clear trajectory of progression. If you are interested, the work breaks down into five distinct phases and is associated with a primary text, just in case you don’t have the inclination to read 500 published articles:

The LANA Project:

Rumbaugh DM. 1977. Language Learning by a Chimpanzee: the LANA Project. New York: Academic Press

The Sherman and Austin Project:

Savage-Rumbaugh ES. 1986. Ape Language: From Conditioned Response to Symbol. New York: Columbia University Press

The Mulika and Kanzi Project:

Savage-Rumbaugh ES, Murphy J, Sevcic RA, Brakke KE, Williams SL, Rumbaugh DM. 1993. Language Comprehension in Ape and Child. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, serial no. 233, Vol. 58, Nos. 3-4

The Panzee and Panbanisha Project:

Brakke K, Savage-Rumbaugh ES. 1995. The development of language skills in bonobo and chimpanzee: I. Comprehension

Savage-Rumbaugh S, Shanker SG, Taylor JT. 1998. Apes, Language, and the Human Mind. Oxford University Press

The Nyota Project:

Segerdahl P, Fields W, Savage-Rumbaugh S. 2005. Kanzi’s Primal Language: The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language. London: Palgrave/Macmillan

Apes are not biological preparations, and their competences widely vary among individual apes and ape populations. In the words of Savage-Rumbaugh, “the science is in the rearing.”

The only organisms capable of acquiring language are babies. We know this to be true. We have raised babies and we have attempted to teach language to wild-caught adult apes. There is a window of opportunity in apes for language acquisition to occur. You had better know what you are doing, or you will only get parts of language, which is essentially no language. For words alone are not language. And I leave this thread with the question we started: What is language? Before you answer that, why not have a look at the language of the Pirahã, an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers of the Amazon as reported by anthropological linguist Dan Everett. His work on the Pirahã includes topics such as the cultural constraints on grammar. Where is Chomsky when you need him?

On behalf of Kanzi, Panbanisha, Nyota, Nathan, Elikya, Maisha, and Matata, I thank you for your attention.


Daniel Povinelli

I became interested in chimpanzees when I was fourteen years old—obsessed, really. It was the late 1970s, during the height of the national media’s attention to the claims that chimpanzees and gorillas (and later, orangutans) could master the elements of human language. Several laboratories around the U.S. and elsewhere were training and exposing apes to sign language, plastic “word chips,” or abstract “lexigrams.” As a teenager I was enthralled: “Wow, what are those apes saying about what it’s like to be an ape? What are they saying about what they think, feel, and desire?” It was the most fascinating career I could imagine. It still is, but for far, far different reasons.

I cannot even begin to explain in this short space all that is interesting about the attempts to expose apes to humans’ language, on the one hand, and what is fantastical, farcical, and at times, absolutely depressing, on the other. I can, however, alert you to the vast, interpretive sweep of which the human mind is capable as it glosses over the “utterances” of those apes that have been trained in this manner. Indeed, over the past several days on this very Web site, there have been several wonderful examples of the human mind’s ability to interpret highly ambiguous behaviors in a manner suitable to one’s preconceived biases. So let me offer you what I offer my students. Take a moment and visit and study some of the unedited transcripts of the on-line chat of Koko the “sign-language-using” gorilla. Study the fascinating dynamic between Dr. Penny Patterson (Koko’s trainer), Koko, and the event moderator, as Dr. Patterson repeatedly “clarifies” Koko’s “remarks.” Judge for yourself.

None of this should suggest that such projects have no merit---indeed, they have great merit. They have revealed that the human ability to develop language is not something that other species are biologically prepared for—it is a distinctively human capacity. Nor should one think I am suggesting that animals do not communicate with each other. They certainly do—in varied and complex ways. Communication is a hallmark of complex species. But the human capacity for language is as much a uniquely human feature as the trunk of elephants is uniquely elephantine.

To some, this may seem too skeptical. On the contrary, this is a view that champions chimpanzees as chimpanzees, gorillas as gorillas, orangutans as orangutans, and so on and so on. We have so much to learn from the great apes about the marvelous differences that make each of us who we are. And we can understand them. But only when we stop thinking about them as “almost human” or, worse yet, hairy human children who can’t quite speak.

Admittedly, the price of admission to this understanding will be steep. It will require leaving behind some of our most cherished ways of understanding the world. Rather than ignoring the differences between them and us, and only reporting the studies and anecdotes that support our preconceived notions of who they are, we will need to grow bigger than ourselves. We will need to take the leap of imagining that they are both radically similar to us, and radically different. We will need to accept that it is only through understanding the differences between them and us that we will gain a full appreciation of who they—and we—truly are.

Alas, the price of admission is greater still.

The public is largely unaware that unless a focused investment is made in the next 5-10 years in the development of highly naturalistic, attractive zoological centers where chimpanzees and other apes can once again begin to breed freely in large, forested spaces, they will become genetically unviable.

We do not have much time. There are perhaps only 2000 chimpanzees left in the U.S. and they are getting older. They majority of them are not allowed to breed. They are on the verge of extinction—in both the wild and captivity. Unless we act now, we will seal their fate as “just another species that inhabited Earth before humans took over.”

Yes, the costs will be high—on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. But designed properly, a network of such state-of-the-art zoological gardens spread throughout the southern U.S. would attract dozens of millions visitors a year, marshalling a powerful economic engine to save them.

I urge everyone to support the efforts of those of us that are working to solve this problem and, in doing so, create a better world for chimpanzees, the other great apes, and ourselves. I am personally involved with the National Great Ape Preservation Foundation (, a group that has the support of leading scientists around the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and leading local and state leaders in Louisiana where the first such facility is slated to be developed. But there are many other such groups that have working on behalf of the great apes for a long time.

The important thing is that we act now.

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If My Genes Are 98.8% Chimp... Am I Just 1.2% Human?

The ability to produce viruses is a function of life like locomotion, digestion, reproduction, etc. and should be added to that list yet instead the wrong question is asked about them i.e. "Are viruses alive or dead?" when the answers is no more alive than you exhaled breath or your ability to walk.
As virus-like DNA (excised as introns during mRNA transcription) makes up 96% of all mammals

The DNA monkey-human question should really be “Of the 0.0048% DNA sequences unique to humans, which gene sequences allow me abstract reasoning enough to frame, ask and answer questions about how related I am to other species?”

Of course the right answer to the right question explains all life and matter is one where (DNA and rocks included), for the sake of concurrent planet wide evolution ( no one gets an overly beneficial survival trait like cyanide bad breath so you can halitosis all living things to death and eat them to extinction of everyone but you), is simple as always … and that answer is, “Life changes matter and matter changes life or 42 depending on which Hitchhiker you ask.”