Resources for Communication Problems

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Language Evolution Theory

bonobo apes in pan-homo culture

Primatologist Susan Savage-Rumbaugh's TEDTalk

Savage-Rumbaugh asks whether uniquely human traits, and other animals' behaviors, are hardwired by species. Then she rolls a video that makes you think: maybe not. The bonobo apes she works with understand spoken English. One follows her instructions to take a cigarette lighter from her pocket and use it to start a fire. Bonobos are shown making tools, drawing symbols to communicate, and playing Pac-Man -- all tasks learned just by watching. Maybe it's not always biology that causes a species to act as it does, she suggests. Maybe it's cultural exposure to how things are done.

Speakers Susan Savage-Rumbaugh: Primate authority

Susan Savage-Rumbaugh has made startling breakthroughs in her lifelong work with chimpanzees and bonobos, showing the animals to be adept in picking up language and other "intelligent" behaviors.

Why you should listen to her:

Into the great debate over intelligence and instinct -- over what makes us human -- Susan Savage-Rumbaugh has thrown a monkey wrench. Her work with apes has forced a new way of looking at what traits are truly and distinctly human, and new questions about whether some abilities we attribute to "species" are in fact due to an animal's social environment. She believes culture and tradition, in many cases more than biology, can account for differences between humans and other primates.

Her bonobo apes, including a superstar named Kanzi, understand spoken English, interact, and have learned to execute tasks once believed limited to humans -- such as starting and controlling a fire. They aren't trained in classic human-animal fashion. Like human children, the apes learn by watching. "Parents really don't know how they teach their children language," she has said. "Why should I have to know how I teach Kanzi language? I just act normal around him, and he learns it."

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is a primatologist most famous for her work with two bonobos, Kanzi and Panbanisha, investigating their apparent use of "Great Ape language" using lexigrams and computer-based keyboards. Until recently based at Georgia State University's Language Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, she has now moved to the Great Ape Trust of Des Moines, Iowa.

Savage-Rumbaugh's view of language - that it is not confined to humans and is learnable by other ape species - is very controversial within linguistics, psychology and other sciences of the brain and mind. For example, the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker strongly criticised the position of Savage-Rumbaugh and others in his award-winning The Language Instinct, arguing that Kanzi and other non-human primates failed to grasp the fundamentals of language.


Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S. 1986. Ape Language: From Conditioned Response to Symbol. New York: Columbia University Press. ASIN B000OQ1WIY

Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S., and Roger Lewin. 1996. Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. Wiley. ISBN 047115959X

Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S., Stuart G. Shanker, and Talbot J. Taylor. 2001. Apes, Language, and the Human Mind. Oxford. ISBN 019514712X

External links

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