July 09, 2006

Voluble apes? I don't think so

The story about language and bonobos by Jon Hamilton that aired on NPR's Weekend Edition yesterday is headlined "A Voluble Visit with Two Talking Apes". This is an astonishing piece of mendacity even for a headline writer, since the apes in question (the bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha) never utter a single sentence, word, syllable, or anything other than shrieks (their productive capacities are limited to touching symbols on a board or a computer screen, usually to indicate that they want some immediate desire to be fulfilled). And not one example was offered of the animals putting even two symbols together according to some linguistic rule. The piece was not without interest — if you did not know that Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has had some success with getting tame bonobos to pick up on the probable meaning of vocal utterances in English by humans, you should take a look at this; but it did nothing to rid me of my strong suspicion that the study of the possibilities of human/ape linguistic interactions is much colored with love, enthusiasm, empathy, creative interpretation, and wishful thinking on the part of the humans, and the whole project is scientifically suspect. Read the story and judge for yourself whether my basic claim about animal communication — that no non-human animal has ever so much as expressed a single opinion about anything in the history of the study of animals — is falsified by anything in this story. I would love to know even a tiny bit about what a bonobo thinks of us (as opposed to what it thinks about the idea of being given a banana). But I don't believe I'm ever going to have the chance.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 9, 2006 03:28 PM