Friday, December 7, 2007

Final Reflection

Unfortunately, in my quest for blogs germane to my topic, I was unable to find any focused on chimpanzee language. Nevertheless, in terms of furthering academic inquiry, I can definitely see uses for “Academic Blogging” with regards to my topic and the field of psychology. Because of the lack of a single methodology in studies assessing the linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees, it has been difficult to make any generalizations. However, blogs would allow for different people to share new ideas and recent studies. For example, someone who sees my blog could do further research on the studies I have mentioned. Additionally, I put forward some interesting questions about this issue that someone may want to elaborate on in their own research. Another important issue to consider is the timeliness of blogs. Responses to new studies can often take months to publish. Academic blogs are an environment in which researchers can debate and present opposing views in an educated and informed manner all in a matter of time. Most importantly, blogs allow us to see the way in which people make different connections with the available research. This is especially important with this issue because as I have mentioned before, there are still plenty of questions to be answered and more research to be done.

With regards to this topic, I don’t intend on continuing my blog due to lack of time. However, I do see myself using this approach again in the near future for long-term academic research papers. This blog gave me the opportunity to make connections and develop new ideas for my paper. Most importantly, I was able to practice putting down these ideas into words that the average academic reader would understand. Final thoughts: I hope this blog will be useful to other students that intend on doing research on this topic. If I receive any feedback I will gladly respond.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Recent Studies

A number of studies have been done in which scientists have taught a chimpanzee to use lexigrams or American Sign Language. Unfortunately, the most recent of these studies are from the late 80’s. Considering the need for current research, I decided to look at other recent studies that look at the minds of chimpanzees. Although these new studies are not directly related to language, they still provide knowledge about the cognitive capabilities of chimpanzees and thus widen the possibility for symbolic language.

As mentioned previously, researchers have long accused chimpanzees of imitation in their displays of language. However, a 2003 study on social learning by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten (“Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees”) revealed that children are more likely to imitate than chimpanzees. Horner and Whiten set up an experiment in which “a human demonstrator use[d] a tool to retrieve a reward from a puzzle-box.” In particular, the study makes note to distinguish between emulation, “a process whereby through watching a model, an observer learns about the results of actions, rather than details about the behaviors involved” and imitation, the act of “produc[ing] a recognizable (if not accurate) copy of the original behavior required to bring about the same result as the model.” The results showed that chimpanzees were more likely to emulate the actions of the human demonstrator. In contrast, children were more involved with direct imitation.

In “College Students Meet Match in Chimpanzee,” Malcolm Ritter discusses a study done this year that also looks at the cognitive capacity of chimpanzees. In this experiment, numbers were quickly flashed on the screen and then rapidly replaced by white squares. The job of the participants was to touch the squares in the proper order. The results showed that compared to Japanese college students, the chimpanzees showed better short-term memory. As Ritter points out, this new study “challenges the belief of many people, including many scientists, that ‘humans are superior to chimpanzees in all cognitive functions.’” The aforementioned studies make it a lot easier to believe that complex language in chimpanzees isn’t so ludicrous after all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What do I have so far?

I have decided to update my approach and impressions on this issue. Despite discrepancies about the definition of language, the research I have surveyed has shown that linguistic anthropologists look at the broader issue by determining whether chimpanzees are capable of symbolism and syntax. Psychologists attempt to determine whether the language displayed by chimpanzees is cognitive or an association. They base their standards on the linguistic capabilities of children. Since psychologists and linguistic anthropologists both seem to agree that there has to be some sense of understanding, I have decided that I will focus on symbolism in chimpanzees in order to answer the broader question: Are chimpanzees capable of human language?

Proof of symbolism in chimpanzees has come in many forms. The following is a list of evidence I have so far:

1. Spontaneous displays of sign language among chimpanzees

2. Anectodes such as that of Washoe and her baby

3. Sensitivity to word order- Ex: understanding the difference between “put the raisins in the shoe” and “put the shoe in the raisins”

4. Generalization- Ex: referring to several drinks as “juice” not just the drink they were taught to call “juice.

5. In those chimpanzees exhibiting signs of symbolic language, training did not involve reinforcement.

I have also found several counter-arguments and problems with this evidence. Some scholars suggest that the following are problems with the aforementioned evidence for symbolism in chimpanzees:

1. Clever Hans effect- Chimpanzees may be subject to cuing by their


2. Evidence of associations in chimpanzees. Also, what constitutes a reinforcer? Can the smile on a trainer’s face be reinforcing?

3. Methodology

a) American Sign Language- uncontrolled and anectodal

b) Lexigrams- lacks the freedom of “real” language

4. Differences in training do not allow for generalizations. If every chimpanzee is trained differently how can we accurately conclude what chimpanzees are really capable of? In addition, in chimpanzees taught American Sign Language, are the trainers fully fluent?

5. Little or no Receptive Capacity- Chimpanzees mostly make requests; they aren’t that good at listening.

6. May some of this symbolic language be random?

So, what can I conclude so far? I think that there is a need for technology that shows us the minds of chimpanzees. Without this technology it is difficult to determine whether the words chimpanzees use represent symbols. Until then though, I think it is important to develop a clearer methodology. As of now, research is scattered and data varies because a single method does not exist for studying language in chimpanzees. Another important point to make in my analysis is that if we set the standards for chimpanzees based on the language seen in children then we should look at the counter-evidence in this same way. Aside from the problems with methodology, children exhibit a lot of the “problems” with language in chimpanzees.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Among the characteristics that have long been thought to make humans unique from other organisms are language, use of tools, and culture. As research began to show the possibility of such characteristics in other animals, such as chimpanzees, the issue of anthropomorphism arose. Although I will not be going into the philosophical aspect of the issue with language in chimpanzees, I still feel it is important to address anthropomorphism. The implications of anthropomorphism (ascribing animals with human characteristics) have played a large role in developing the controversy over the linguistic capacity of chimpanzees. Part of the reason that some scientists have such a problem with the evidence available for language in chimpanzees is that it suggests that humans are not the only ones capable of language.

In “Are we in Anthropodenial?,” Frans de Waal discusses anthropodenial, “a blindness to the human-like characteristics of ourselves.” Several scientists are guilty of anthropodenial when they refuse to look closely at the evidence for language in chimpanzees. As Waal points out, “…we must be very careful not to exaggerate the uniqueness of our species.” Language has been labeled “unique” to humans and in turn, that has caused us to be skeptical of any evidence that tells us otherwise. Despite the importance of being open to new possibilities though, anthropomorphism should be used with caution. As Waal mentions, “To avoid making silly interpretations based on anthropomorphism, one must always interpret animal behavior in the wider context of a species’ habits and natural history.” Given the consequences of anthropodenial and anthropomorphism, Waal asks: “What kind of risk are we willing to take- the risk of underestimating animal mental life of the risk of overestimating it?” Obviously, this will be a very important question for me to reflect on as I develop ideas for my final paper. While it is important to look at the capabilities of chimpanzees with an open mind, it is just as important to avoid making hasty conclusions.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sherman, Austin, and Kanzi

Substantial but still questionable proof about the existence of language in chimpanzees has come from two chimpanzees named Sherman and Austin. In "Communication, Symbolic Communication, and Language: Reply to Seidenberg and Petitto," Sue-Savage Rumbaugh discusses some of this evidence. After a considerable amount of training, Sherman and Austin were able to group lexigrams into different categories such as food and tools despite the absence of the objects themselves. If a chimpanzee can group the lexigram for “banana” under the category “fruit” without an actual banana being present, then we may conclude that some level of understanding is present.

Further indications about symbolism in chimpanzees came from a chimpanzee named Kanzi. If Kanzi really has an understanding of the words he is using then we can assume that if his environment changes than so will his language. Kanzi’s use of the lexigram “Matata” always resulted in being able to visit the colony room to spend time with his mother or other chimpanzees. At first, it is easy to assume that this is probably just the result of an association that Kanzi has made in which the “Matata” lexigram= a visit to the colony room. In other words, for Kanzi, the “Matata” lexigram does not actually represent his mother. However, as soon as Matata was moved to a different area, he stopped using the “Matata” lexigram to go to the colony room and instead began using only the “colony room” lexigram. Could this mean that Kanzi understood that the “Matata” lexigram was a symbolic representation of his mother?

Rumbaugh stresses that such evidence has arisen in the absence of conditioning and an emphasis on comprehension. She makes clear that the “comprehension of spoken words was not mediated by, nor linked to, any desired outcome such as food or travel…responses to such requests provided no special consequences and did not permit Kanzi to obtain desired outcomes that he would not otherwise have received.” However, I don’t think that just because signing “banana” does not result in an actual banana that we can conclude that there is some form of symbolic communication going on. I think it is important to note that reinforcers (any stimulus that increases a behavior) vary between individuals and that they can be just about anything. So, even if Kanzi isn’t receiving bananas for a correct response, the simple smile on a trainer’s face may be enough to increase that response. Kanzi may be making an association in which choosing the “banana” lexigram results in a happy trainer. This is contrary to the idea that the “banana” lexigram forces Kanzi to form a mental representation of an actual banana in his mind. But is this any different than when a child is first learning to speak? Aren't children often rewarded as a result of saying a new word? So why is reinforcement such a big deal in the language training of chimpanzees?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chimpanzee Language Controversy May Be More Complex Than It Appears

In “Ape-Language Controversy Flares Up,” Jean L. Marx highlights some of the key issues in the controversy over language in chimpanzees. Marx begins by noting the complexity of language and how in turn this makes it difficult to determine what constitutes human language. However, despite disagreements over what defines language, he mentions that there is an agreement “that the words or signs be symbols for something and be recognized as such by the user. And…that the words be combined with one another to form novel phrases or sentences that are nonetheless understandable by others.” Perhaps I can look at symbolism and syntax in the cases surrounding this issue in order to answer the broader question about whether or not chimpanzees are capable of language.

Marx also illustrates the two ways in which the chimpanzee language controversy is dealt with. Chimpanzees can be taught American Sign Language in a more “natural” setting and then their progress can be compared with children. However, Marx asserts that such a method can be criticized for being “uncontrolled” and “anecdotal.” On the other hand, some researchers develop and teach “artificial languages” such as lexigrams. This method is also subject to criticism as it may be seen as too “artificial” and devoid of any “spontaneity” and “freedom.”

Further, Marx suggests that there is a chance that some of the evidence we see for language in chimpanzees can be the result of the Clever Hans effect. For those of you not familiar with Clever Hans, he was a horse thought to be capable of solving basic math problems. His trainer would give him a math problem to solve and then Clever Hans would proceed by tapping out the answer with his hoof. Unfortunately, it was soon discovered that the horse’s trainer had subconsciously been providing cues that allowed Clever Hans to determine when to stop tapping his hoof. So, could some of the trainers be providing chimpanzees with cues as to what to “say”?

Finally, Marx illustrates the implications that arise with differences in training. Nim was a chimpanzee that was taught to use sign language by Herbert Terrace. Unlike previously trained chimpanzees, Nim did not demonstrate any evidence of spontaneity but rather showed several signs of imitation. Some critics suggested that this was the result of training Nim in such a way that any correct response produced a reward (otherwise known as operant conditioning). This is just one of the many ways in which the way a chimpanzee is trained can effect the results of a study.

In general, this article has made me more aware of how complex this issue is. Marx stresses the significance of methodology, cuing, and training. Whether a chimpanzee is taught sign language or lexigram may not seem to be of any importance, but as Marx points out, this choice can bring about different implications. As I evaluate the well-known cases in this area, it will be important to look at the entire context of a situation.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cognition or Association?

In his book Learning and Memory: An Integrative Approach, David A. Lieberman discusses the issue of language in chimpanzees in terms of cognition and associations. Further, he makes note of some prominent cases surrounding this issue. Initially, scientists had attempted to teach chimpanzees to speak but after failed attempts it was decided that it was physically impossible. In an attempt to surpass these limitations, Allen and Beatrice Gardner taught American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe with great success. In another similar effort, Duane Rumbaugh and Sue-Savage Rumbaugh taught chimpanzees “a new language using geometrical shapes that they called lexigrams as words. The lexigrams were displayed on a keyboard linked to a computer, and subjects could choose words by pressing the appropriate symbol on the board.”

Despite compelling evidence that suggested that chimpanzees possessed the capacity for human language there was controversy over the nature of this “language.” As Lieberman puts it best:

“If Lana [the chimpanzee] is hungry and touches the lexigram for banana, does this means that she understands what this sign means, or is she simply repeating a movement that was reinforced in the past? A chimpanzee touching a lexigram might be behaving no more intelligently than a rat pressing a bar- both might simply be repeating behavior that was previously reinforced.”

In other words, Lieberman suggests that just because chimpanzees can sign “banana” does not mean that they possess semanticity, the ability to “understand the meaning of the words they are using.” Perhaps the chimpanzees are merely forming associations in which they have learned that the word “banana” will lead to food or a reward.

Still, Lieberman offers a particular piece of evidence in favor of language in chimpanzees that struck me as compelling. When Washoe became a mother her baby was sick and eventually died. As Lieberman mentions, “when Washoe saw her trainer the next day, her first sign was ‘Baby?’ The trainer replied by signing ‘Baby gone, baby finished.’” Lieberman goes on to describe Washoe’s reaction as “dramatic,” “vacant,” and “distant.” To me, this can only suggest that the language exhibited in chimpanzees is part of a complex, cognitive process in which words have meaning. However, as Lieberman mentions “we cannot observe animals’ mental states, and so there will probably always be some level of doubt about the linguistic capacity of chimpanzees.” So unfortunately, until we have the right technology, we probably will not be certain whether chimpanzees merely make associations or possess cognitive abilities. On a sad final note, on October 31, 2007, reported that Washoe died of natural causes. For more information about this recent incident go to 2007/ TECH/ science/ 10/31/ signing.chimp.dies.ap/ index.html?iref=newssearch .

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Chimpanzees and Language

I have always had an interest in the behavior and learning capabilities of animals. In particular though, chimpanzees have always intrigued me since they are our closest relatives. In fact, we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees! By integrating the fields of anthropology and psychology, I intend to gain a better understanding of the linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees. Over time, debate has risen over cases in which chimpanzees have learned to use American Sign Language in order to communicate. Some evidence shows that chimpanzees engage in complex cognitive processes that result in an understanding of the signs and symbols used. However, some behaviorists will disagree and assert that such responses are merely the result of learned associations that have been reinforced or punished in the past. The purpose of this blog will be to explore the debate between cognition and association regarding the use of language by chimpanzees.

I have already been exposed to some of the more prominent cases associated with this issue including that of Washoe, Lana, and Kanzi. Further, I have substantial knowledge about behaviorism and the debate over learning as a complex or simple process. I anticipate that I will find substantial evidence that suggests that chimpanzees possess the ability to understand the language they use and learn. However, I think that such evidence will often be questioned in terms of its methodology and tendency to arise in the form of anecdotes rather that scientific data. Further, there is no evidence for the formation of mental representations because this is something that can not be physically observed. Still, I hope that by doing an in-depth analysis of this issue I can make suggestions about further research that needs to be done and possibly propose limits of the capabilities of chimpanzees based on the evidence provided in the fields of anthropology and psychology.