May 31, 2007

Groundbreaking research with credulous primates

I think I would have said, had anyone asked, that reporting on animal communication stories couldn't get much dumber. There just wasn't any more room down there: we're at 87 on the FM dial of intelligence in reporting, and there's just about nowhere to go but up. I was wrong. Says John Berman of ABC News in a piece headed Groundbreaking Research Has Scientists Talking With Apes:

The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, is home to seven bonobos -- a close relative of the chimpanzee -- and three orangutans. But if you think Iowa might be a strange place for them to live, don't say it out loud — these apes understand English.

Really. No kidding.

I think it would be unfair to make you read through the drivel itself to reach the point where Berman interviews Kanzi, a bonobo, and we learn the full extent of Kanzi's success in EFL class, so here is the crucial bit:

I read Kanzi a series of words, and then without fail, he hit the corresponding lexigram symbol on a touch screen.
I said "Egg."
He pressed "Egg."
I said, "M and M."
He pressed "M and M."
Then Kanzi took control of the conversation and pressed the symbol for "Surprise!"

By "Suprise!", Kanzi actually means the closed box of candy beside Berman (it's Kanzi's keepers who have supplied the meaning SURPRISE for that lexigram, of course; they could have called it the CUT THE CRAP AND GIMME SOME OF THAT CANDY I KNOW YOU'VE GOT IN THAT BOX lexigram). Kanzi wants Berman to open it and give him some piece of candy. He's prepared to learn which symbols on an electronic board to press in order to induce humans to give him sweet treats. This is the evidence that Kanzi has learned English. Are you convinced?

Because there is more. Only I don't mean more from Kanzi, who is a clever ape, who has doubtless learned a remarkable number of new symbol-to-concept associations and lexigram-pressing behaviors but unfortunately has nothing to say to us. I mean there is more evidence concerning the incredible stupidity of the white, hairless primates doing the reporting. This is more dim-wittedly credulous than anything I have seen before.

"Moments like this", Berman says, referring to the above fascinating interspecies communing, "are proof that these conversations help scientists learn about apes, from the apes themselves." He quotes Rob Shumaker, one of the investigators at the Great Ape Trust:

"If we have some common means of communicating with each other," said Shumaker, " we suddenly have exponentially large number of topics that we can explore."

(There's nothing like a floating use of the term "exponential" to reveal a speaker's innumeracy, I always think. An exponential function of what, in this particular case? Never mind; it was only a rhetorical question.)

We learn more about Shumaker from this passage, just before the above quote:

Rob Shumaker has known Azy, a majestic, huge male orangutan, for more than 20 years. He talks to Azy, just like he would speak to one of his children, or a longtime friend.

"When I'm around them we just kind of talk normally," he explained. "I use my normal vocabulary, my normal voice my normal gestures."

Berman asks: "Sound beyond belief?" Well, since he asks, no, it doesn't. The point was meant to be about apes understanding English, not about humans like Rob Shumaker being able to speak it. What does Azy say back to Rob? Nothing, apparently. Berman tells us nothing more about Azy. He just babbles on breathlessly: "During a visit to the Great Ape Trust, I sat down with Kanzi the Bonobo -- the first Ape I have ever interviewed." And then he reports the interview above, where, as he accurately describes it himself, "I read Kanzi a series of words, and then without fail, he hit the corresponding lexigram symbol on a touch screen."

Another member of the staff at the Great Ape Trust is Bill Fields, who has been working with Kanzi for years. "To communicate," says Berman, "Fields speaks to Kanzi, who then points to the lexigrams to respond and demonstrate a level of understanding." And then he quotes Fields as saying this:

"Qualitatively, there is no difference between Kanzi's language and my language," Fields said. "It's a matter of degree."

Let's look at that first sentence Fields uttered. It has a preposed adverb in adjunct function (qualitatively) at the beginning of an existential clause with a singular postcopular noun phrase with a negative determiner (the determinative no) and a complement preposition phrase headed by between. The preposition between has as its complement a noun-phrase coordination in which the two noun phrases have contrasting genitive noun phrase determiners (Kanzi's and my, respectively). Bill Fields knows how to construct English clauses with typical syntactic sophistication.

Kanzi, on the other hand, sometimes presses the EGG lexigram on hearing a human say "Egg". (Read the testimony of Steve Jones about another day when Kanzi was not quite so cooperative.)

And Fields wants to tell us that there is simply no qualitative difference between his linguistic ability and Kanzi's. He must think he is talking to complete morons who will believe absolutely anything about interspecies communication.

He may be right, too. John Berman appears to have believed him. And doubtless millions of other people will.

I don't know about you, but I am just about... speechless. If I had a lexigram board in front of me, I wouldn't know which lexigram to press. The BULLSHIT lexigram, maybe? Is there a lexigram for that? Or an IDIOT lexigram? I think I need a stiff drink, actually; I may press the LARGE SINGLE MALT lexigram.

Oh, one other thing: at one point Berman reports this remark from Bill Fields:

"Language is culturally acquired. Its not learned," said Fields. "It's acquired in the immediate postnatal antogyny of the organisms life. [sic]

On the whole of the web, antogyny only got one hit as of yesterday, and it's Berman's piece. (Soon there will be this post as well.) The word does not, of course, exist. Berman heard Fields talking about ontogeny, but didn't know the term (it means development in the individual rather than evolution in the species), so he apparently guessed which lexigram button to hit. He guessed he was hearing anto- as in antonymy and -gyny as in misogyny. A sort of learned eggcorn. (What would "antogyny" mean? The property of being the opposite of a woman?) It's further clear evidence that Berman didn't know what he was seeing or hearing, and had no ability to understand the supposed story that someone had sent him to cover. A wandering human simpleton loose in a community composed of (i) apes who spend all day trying to persuade people to give them candy and (ii) human keepers trying to hype the non-existent linguistic abilities of the apes. It looks like the fire season and the silly season are both going to be bad ones this year.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 31, 2007 01:46 PM