Tag Archives: Gardners

The Minding Animals Conference

From 4 to 6 July the second Minding Animals Conference was organized at Utrecht University. Every three years this conference is held in another university city, set up by Minding Animals International. The purpose of these conferences is to build bridges and bring people together from science, philosophy and animal organizations. During the conference many lectures are given about all kinds of subjects that have to do with animals: the intelligence or cognition of animals, emotions and consciousness of animals, animal ethics, politics and policies regarding animals, animals in literature and art, and yet more subjects. Hundreds of people from all over the world had travelled to Utrecht for this 3-day conference. The programme was packed and started each day at 9 in the morning, to end only at 10:30 in the evening. It was a tiring but very interesting conference.

Christian democrat minister of agriculture Henk Bleker opened the conference with a long self-apology about his farming background, assuring all present that farmers also have a good relationship with their animals.

My two lectures were scheduled for the first day, Wednesday July 4. In the morning during the session “Animal capacities: concepts, beliefs and language” I gave my lecture Have nonhuman great apes acquired human language? In this lecture I gave a review of all language research with nonhuman great apes that has been carried out for over a century now. I discussed the results of these studies in which great apes were taught some form of human language, by spoken language experiments, sign language projects and communication by geometric symbols or lexigrams. Below you will find the text of both lectures. The conclusion of my lecture was that chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans are able to learn individual symbols for all kinds of objects and actions, but that nonhuman great apes do not combine these symbols in a meaningful, structured way and that they have a limited motivation for using these symbols: in order to obtain things and actions from humans. For this reason I ended the lecture with the position that nonhuman great apes have not acquired a human language and that the capacity for language is a qualitative difference between humans and other apes. In general the lecture was received well. However, some people were not pleased by my conclusion. The fact that I don’t ascribe language to other animals amounts to some people to confirming or creating anew a dichotomy between humans and other animals. Unfortunately, people then don’t listen good enough anymore to the scientific arguments that I presented.

In the afternoon I gave my second lecture during the session “Animal ethics: capacities and relations.” This lecture was called Is absence of language in nonhuman great apes morally relevant? and was the moral sequel to the scientific conclusions that I had presented in the morning. In the lecture I criticized the positions of philosophers such as R.G. Frey and Peter Carruthers, who take the capacity for language as an important moral distinction between humans and other animals. I gave my criticisms of their arguments and came to the conclusion that the capacity for sentience (the ability to experience pain and pleasure) or phenomenal consciousness (the experiential aspects of our mental states) is a sufficient condition for a moral equality among all animals. In my view the presence or absence of language does not lead to a morally different treatment of humans and other animals, and I argue for equality of all animals, with or without language. Again the lecture was visited well, among the audience the famous philosopher Peter Singer. The reactions were very positive, people thought it was a good discussion of the language issue. Some people came to me afterwards and said they thought it remarkable that I argue for cognitive or motivational differences between humans and other animals (no language), and yet that I argue at the same time for a completely egalitarian relationship between all animals. They thought I was a pleasant exception in that, which, sadly enough, is indeed the case.

Below you will find the text of both lectures. Let me know your opinion about them.

Have nonhuman great apes acquired a human language? 

Before I could start the chairman of the session and me had to solve some computer problems.

When psychology and linguistics started to develop as scientific disciplines in the 19th and 20th century, a scientific oddyssey was embarked upon to discover whether nonhuman great apes could acquire something of our human language. Though several scientific questions laid at the base of this oddyssey, such as the question how much of behaviour is innate or acquired by learning, a major motivation for these studies has also been plain scientific curiosity: how far can our closest furry cousins go in acquiring parts of the human language when we teach them this?

Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans have been used in all kinds of language studies for almost a century now, starting in 1909 with the American psychologist Lightner Witmer and the chimpanzee Peter. Later this type of research with nonhuman great apes has been called Ape Language Research or ALR. In this lecture I will present the results of this century of ape language research and I will answer the question whether nonhuman great apes have acquired a human language.

Before I continue, let me give you the definition of language that I use. Language, in my opinion, consists of three main characteristics. First, the use of words or signs as symbols, referring to things in the outside world or to abstract concepts. Second, the ability to meaningfully combine these symbols by means of grammar and syntax. Third, a rich variety of functions. The functions of human language can be summarized as follows: the transmission of information, expressing one’s thoughts and emotions, the regulation of social relationships, clarification of ideas, humour and play with language, lying, referring to things displaced in space and time and the telling of stories, fantasies and all kinds of abstract concepts. Language gives us the ability to express all these functions in a very detailed and specific way. Indeed, this conference itself is a good example of the possibilities of human language.

When scientists first tried to teach language to nonhuman great apes, only spoken language was considered to be a real human language. The first ape language experiments were thus focused on teaching apes to speak words, starting in 1909 with Lightner Witmer from the University of Pennsylvania, who tried to teach the 5-year old chimpanzee Peter to speak the word mama and the letter p. Later other scientists followed with their own chimpanzees and also orangutans. Usually they tried to make the ape speak a word by manipulating the mouth and lips of the ape subjects. Often the apes were living in the human homes of the scientists, where they were sometimes cross-fostered, or raised by humans as if the ape was a human child. The spoken language experiments were quite unsuccesful, however, the biggest achievement coming from the chimpanzee Viki, who lived with Keith & Catherine Hayes from 1947 to 1953. After these 6 years of training, Viki was able to produce mama, papa, cup and up. However, Viki had a lot of trouble producing these words, which were often inaudible, and more importantly, used in the wrong contexts. The failure of the spoken language experiments was explained by the differences in vocal apparatus between human and nonhuman apes: the nonhuman apes were physically unable to produce actual human words.

In the 1960s new research on human sign language showed that signed languages are just as complex and rich as spoken languages, elevating sign language from its originally prejudiced position as not a real language. This change in perception of human language caused a new chapter in ape language research: now it was the question whether nonhuman great apes could learn and acquire signs. In 1966, the psychologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner from the University of Nevada at Reno started with Project Washoe, in which they taught signs to the wild-caught chimpanzee, Washoe, who was about 10 months old when the project started. Cross-fostered by the Gardners, she was immersed in a linguistic environment in which the humans communicated by using signs. Moulding the hands of the chimpanzee into the right configuration for a sign turned out to be the most succesful method by which to teach signs. After almost 4 years the Gardners had made a historic achievement: Washoe had acquired about 132 signs for various objects and actions. This success with Washoe inspired further projects with other apes. The Gardners and later Roger and Deborah Fouts taught signs to 4 more, newborn, chimpanzees and according to the Fouts the adopted son of Washoe, Loulis, learned signs from the other chimpanzees, sometimes even by active teaching from Washoe. In 1972, the psychologist Francine Patterson of Stanford Univeristy started Project Koko, in which she taught signs to the gorilla Koko, and later to her male companion the gorilla Michael. In 1978, lastly, the anthropologist Lyn Miles from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga started Project Chantek, with the orangutan Chantek.

Besides projects in which apes were taught sign language, since the 1970s other projects were set up in which apes were taught symbols in the form of lexigrams, geometric, often arbitrary symbols, on a plastic board or computer screen. Duane Rumbaugh started in 1971 with Project Lana, in which he taught the chimpanzee Lana lexigrams for objects. Later, with his wife Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the chimpanzees Sherman and Austin were taught lexigrams for all kinds of objects and actions. In the 1980s work by the Rumbaughs started with bonobos, their star subject being the bonobo Kanzi, who eventually learned to use hundreds of lexigrams.

The scientists of these sign language and lexigram studies with nonhuman great apes eventually claimed that their ape subjects had acquired (some form of) human language. Not only had the apes learned that a symbol can refer to something in the outside world, the capacity for reference, but the apes also made meaningful combinations of symbols, even expressing grammar in these combinations, mostly by use of a specific syntactical order of combining symbols. Furthermore, it was claimed that the apes used the symbols for a rich variety of functions, not only requesting objects or food from their human caretakers, but also commenting on the things they saw, and even expressing their emotions and thoughts through their use of symbols. For example, the Fouts claimed that Washoe could use the sign HURT to express that she had a stomach ache. Especially Patterson has claimed that the gorilla Koko expressed her feelings a lot, such as signing HAPPY GOOD YOU COME when visitors arrived, and signing CRY and SAD when her famous kitten All Ball died. The Fouts and Patterson also claimed that the apes used signs such as DIRTY and DEVIL to make insults, for example, when Washoe was denied something by Roger Fouts, she signed DIRTY ROGER.

Meanwhile, another project with a signing chimpanzee was carried out in the 1970s. This was the project by the psychologist Herbert Terrace, who at Columbia University taught signs to the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky, named after the famous linguist Noam Chomsky. Terrace obtained quite different results than the other researchers and he concluded that the apes had nót learned a human language. The publication of his work caused a lot of upheaval, in what has become known as the ape language controversy.

This controversy drew attention to problems of methodology and interpretation in ape language research. Terrace was the first to carry out systematic video analyses of the sign interactions between the chimpanzee Nim and the humans. To his surprise he found that Nim imitated the signs the humans made to a large extent. Combinations of signs appeared not to show any semantic or syntactic structure, consisting largely of stringing signs together in order to get the human into action. Motivationally, Terrace concluded that signing apes only used their signs acquisitively: in order to acquire objects and actions or attention from the humans, thus using the symbols in a very limited way compared to what human children do when they first start acquiring language, who also ask questions, describe thoughts and express emotions.

What are we to think of this whole controversy, which persists up to this day, with more or less two camps still criticizing each other: those who believe that nonhuman apes have acquired a human language, and those who do not. Who is right?

When I studied psychology I became very intrigued by the field of ape language research. I was less interested in the question whether the apes had acquired an actual language. My interest was more in the possibility that this form of symbolic communication could be a new and third way to obtain new knowledge about the consciousness or inner nature of the apes: their thoughts and emotions. Scientists already analyzed the nervous systems and nonverbal behaviour of animals in their study of animal consciousness, but the ape language studies promised a verbal and direct expression of their inner conscious states. During my psychology studies I visited the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute of Central Washington University, where the Fouts continued to study the sign use of Washoe and four other chimpanzees. I also visited the other ape language researchers and returned to Holland, determined to set up a Ph.D. project about the possibly linguistic apes. Working from the philosophy of science section at the Philosophy Department of the University of Nijmegen, I paid multiple visits to the States in the 1990s to collect data about the apes in the language projects.

My first focus was on the use of what in child language research are called internal state terms: words or signs that refer to Positive affect, such as happy, love and funny, Negative effect, such as angry, cry, sad, Physiological states, such as hungry, thirsty and tired, Perception: see, hear, smell, pain, cold and Cognition: know, think, remember. Human children start acquiring internal state terms when they are 2 years old and start using these for other people when they are 2.5 years old. According to the Fouts, the signing chimpanzees had acquired signs that referred to the chimpanzees’ internal states, such as HAPPY, SAD and CRY. However, when I investigated the archives of the signing chimpanzees from 1970 to 1995, I found that almost all of these signs had not been used at all in these 25 years. The signs that they did use could all be explained as not referring to their inner states, but as useful signs to manipulate the humans. The use of CRY, for example, was mostly used by the chimpanzees after they had first made a request for food or an object, which was then denied by the humans, to which they then signed CRY. When I visited Koko and Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation in California, I was given access to all the Koko diaries on microfilm from the beginning of the project to 1995. The discovery I made there, was that Patterson had been unacceptably selective in her presentation and publication of Koko’s sign use. The unedited Koko diaries showed that Koko was drilled in using signs such as SMILE and CRY by showing her pictures of smiling and crying humans many times a day. More importantly, this unedited material also showed the many, many times that Koko used these signs incorrectly. Thus she would sign CRY to a picture of a smiling man and SAD CRY DEVIL to a picture of a horse. Patterson then gave an unrepresentative presentation of Koko’s signing by only publishing her sign utterances that appeared to be linguistic or referring to internal states, while omitting all other clearly nonlinguistic use of signs by Koko. These discoveries made me abandon this focus on possibly internal state signs, because these were either not used by the apes or did not show an actual reference to inner states.

I then changed my study into a large, systematic analysis of all use of signs by Washoe and the other chimpanzees at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, when they were in interaction with longtime human companions. I hoped to find solid data that could show what the chimpanzees were actually doing with the signs and whether their sign use showed any linguistic properties. I analyzed in great detail 22 hours of videotaped interactions from 1992 to 1999. The subjects of my study were Washoe, who was then between 26 and 34 years old, Moja, who was 19 to 26 years, Tatu, between 16 and 23 years, Dar, 15 and 23 years, and lastly, Loulis, Washoe’s adopted son, who was then between 14 and 21 years old.  3,500 chimpanzee sign utterances were obtained for analysis. I determined the particular individual signs that the chimpanzees used, the kinds of combinations of signs that they made, and each sign utterance was coded for its communicative intention or the reason for which the chimpanzee used the utterance.

These were my results: The individual signs that Washoe and the other chimpanzees used mostly consisted of object or action signs, with the signs DRINK, FLOWER, EAT and GUM among the most used signs. Their combinations of signs showed no semantic or syntactic structure and the longer combinations were quite similar to Nim’s: stringing signs structurelessly together, in order to provoke the humans into giving them something. For example, Washoe made the following 13-sign utterance: DRINK HOT GIMME DRINK TOOTHBRUSH GUM HOT GIMME TOOTHBRUSH GIMME TOOTHBRUSH GUM BOOK. In terms of their communicative intentions, the chimpanzees predominantly used signs when they wanted to request objects or actions from the humans. Thus, Terrace’s characterization of ape sign use as acquisitive, used to acquire things from humans, was very appropriate for Washoe’s and the other chimpanzees’ use of signs. For this reason I gave my dissertation the title GIMME GIMME GIMME. The results that I obtained were remarkable findings. They demonstrated a nonlinguistic use of signs of the same apes of which it had been claimed for decades that they signed linguistically.

A further result that I’d like to mention specifically is the use of signs by Loulis, Washoe’s adopted son.  The Fouts had claimed that Loulis had learned over 50 signs from the other chimpanzees (because the humans did not sign in his presence for more than 5 years), which was  then interpreted as a cultural transmission of a human language by chimpanzees. In the videotaped interactions that I analyzed Loulis only used the four signs POINT, GIMME, CHASE AND HURRY. These last three signs are normal chimpanzee gestures that have been observed in many chimpanzees in captivity and in the wild. GIMME is the begging gesture with a stretched hand palm up, CHASE the wrist-hit gesture to initiate play and HURRY the impatience gesture of shaking the hands. Thus Loulis had only learned to point to things that he wanted. He never used a sign to refer to objects and did not show a linguistic use of signs.

The different results that I obtained with Washoe and the other chimpanzees, compared to the earlier studies, can be explained by differences in methodology and interpretation. In my study I only used videotaped interactions and I used large corpora or collections of unedited sign use by the chimpanzees. These methods had not been used enough in the previous studies. Many claims from the ape language researchers had been based on unfilmed and unrepresentative instances of signing by the apes, causing unwarranted linguistic conclusions.

Let me explain this in more detail. The problems of using unfilmed data are that these are insufficiently reliable. First, perception errors can occur, mistaking a scratch for a sign or mistaking one sign for another. For example, the signs HURT and BANANA are close to each other. HURT is made by contacting the tips of extended indexes of opposite hands. BANANA is made by the index grasping or rubbing the tip of the other hand’s extended index and pulling it toward oneself. (of ene sign voor andere). A human, focused on finding evidence of linguistic sign use, as all researchers were in these projects, could then mistake Tatu signing TATU BANANA for TATU HURT. Second, memory errors can take place in the time it takes after a signing interaction with an ape to then go back inside and write down the observation. A human might then forget all the exact individual signs that Washoe had made or the correct sequence of the signs. For example, Washoe could have signed BOOK HURRY APPLE ORANGE GIMME RED GIMME YOU WASHOE. An hour or so later the human could remember only something like HURRY YOU GIMME RED APPLE. Third, with unfilmed observations there is no way of assessing the role of imitation of the human by the apes, as there is no reliable information whatsoever on what the humans signed in these interactions.

The fact that large unedited corpora of sign use were used insufficiently means that the human researchers in these projects focused on incidental sign use that appeared to be linguistic, when only by a thorough and systematic analysis of all sign use can one make definitive conclusions. For example, Washoe’s description of a swimming swan as a WATER BIRD has often been presented as an example of a meaningful and creative combination of signs. However, without the analysis of large corpora there is no way of knowing whether Washoe may also have made many unmeaningful combinations of signs such as WATER BANANA and COOKIE BIRD. In which case the WATER BIRD combination would have been just another meaningless combining of signs. When I analyzed the unedited Koko diaries on possible internal state terms this was exactly what I found: Patterson had published only those sign instances of SAD and CRY in which she seemingly referred to her emotions and thoughts, but systematic analysis of all Koko’s sign use showed that she more often used such signs without any reference to her emotions.

         Problems of interpretation have also been part and parcel of the ape sign language projects. For example, much has been made by the Gardners and Fouts of the fact that the chimpanzees asked questions, asking for information, using the same accompanying nonverbal behaviours in which humans ask a question in sign language: holding the sign, looking at the other person while waiting for an answer. However, these accompanying behaviours are evidence of intentional communication rather than demonstrating a linguistic use of signs. More importantly, all of the instances in which the apes asked a question can better be interpreted as the apes asking or making a request for food, objects or actions and then waiting for the human to give the ape something. Another example is the interpretation of the sign DIRTY as an insult. DIRTY is made by loudly hitting the chin with a hand, thus making a loud noise by which to attract the attention of a human. DIRTY is then better interpreted as an attention-getter. Chimpanzees in captivity all over the world use many such attention-getting behaviours to draw the attention of their human caretakers.

Besides Terrace’s analyses and my own study, only one further study in ape language research exists that is methodologically and scientifically sound. This is the study published in 1993 by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of Kanzi. Not of his use of lexigrams, but of his understanding of short English commands, such as “put the carrot in the water” or “put the keys in the refrigerator”. All interactions were filmed and the contents published entirely. The results showed that Kanzi was indeed able to understand hundreds of human words for objects and actions.

So, after almost a century of ape language research what conclusions can we draw today about the capacity for language in nonhuman great apes? Again, in the definition of human language that I use, language consists of 3 important aspects: 1. The use of symbols, 2. The capacity to meaningfully combine these symbols grammatically and syntactically, and 3. A rich variety of functions for which the symbols are used. Using this definition of language I reach the following conclusions: Nonhuman great apes are able to understand hundreds of symbols for all kinds of objects and actions. Something which has also recently been found to be true for border collie dogs, such as the German border collie Rico, who understands over 200 words for toy objects and the American border collie Chaser who was demonstrated to understand even over a thousand words for objects. So the apes can understand symbols. But when the apes combine symbols, however, these combinations don’t show any semantic or grammatical structure. Lastly, the apes almost only use their symbols to acquire things from humans, whereas humans themselves, including human children who start acquiring language, use language for a rich variety of different functions. Thus, I conclude that nonhuman great apes have not been able to acquire language and I claim that this is a qualitative difference in capacities between human and nonhuman great apes. In my next lecture I will discuss what this conclusion means for our ethics towards nonhuman great apes.

 

Is absence of language in nonhuman great apes morally relevant?

The capacity for language has long been a major dividing point between humans and all other animals. For the 17th century philosopher René Descartes human language was the only certain proof that a being possessed not just a body, but also a mind. Descartes defined language not only as an ability to use words, which he knew parrots could also learn and use. He saw language particularly as the meaningful combination of words or symbols, through which humans can express thoughts and all their inner life. In contrast, in Descartes’ view, birds using words and all other animal communication simply consisted of a mindless expression of the animals’ passions or motivation. Indeed, his assumption that parrots who had learned words only used these to express their passions, was for Descartes a good argument that all nonhuman animals don’t even háve thoughts, a mental life or a mind. Nonhuman animals thus were reduced to mindless automata or machines. The dichotomy between mindful humans and mindless animals thus constructed by Descartes, had a major impact on the way science and philosophy viewed nonhuman animals for centuries. The absence of language in nonhuman animals has since often been used as an excuse for quite speciesist moral philosophies and has led to the justification of practices such as animal experimentation.

Since animal ethics came up in the 1970s as a subdiscipline of ethics, language has continued as a morally relevant ability in several animal ethics theories. I will mention two cases. The philosopher R.G. Frey from Bowling Green State University in Ohio argued that language is a required capacity in order to have beliefs and desires and therefore interests. He expressed this view in his 1980 book Interests and Rights: The case against animals and in his 1983 book Rights, killing and suffering. According to Frey, because nonhuman animals are incapable of having desires and therefore interests, they don’t have rights like humans do and he argued for an inegalitarian view between humans and other animals, where nonhuman animals are of lesser moral value than linguistic humans. The British philosopher Peter Carruthers, now at the University of Maryland, claimed that language is a necessary ability to experience mental states, argueing that nonlinguistic animals do not have sentience or phenomenal consciousness. Sentience was defined by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation as “the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment.” Phenomenal consciousness is a term coined by the British philosopher Ned Block with which he refers to the experiential properties of sensations, feelings and perceptions, thoughts, desires and emotions. Carruthers published his view on animals in his 1992 book The Animals Issue and he has since continued to write further publications about it. In Carruthers’ view nonhuman animals, lacking language and therefore having no sentience, are not part of the moral community. Humans only have indirect obligations to other animals, such as not being cruel to them, because cruelty towards animals shows the presence of a cruel character, which could then also lead to cruelty towards other humans.

In the Great Ape Project (GAP), set up by Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, the results from the studies with signing apes were used in the argument for equality among all great apes (human and nonhuman). The project was launched in 1993 with the presentation of the book The Great Ape Project. Equality Beyond Humanity. Several ape sign language researchers contributed to this book with chapters in which they demonstrated the linguistic abilities of signing apes. These were Roger and Deborah Fouts, who worked with Washoe and four other signing chimpanzees,  Francine Patterson, who studied the signing gorillas Koko and Michael, and Lyn Miles, who worked with the signing orangutan Chantek. Later, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the researcher who studied the use of lexigram symbols by the bonobo Kanzi, joined this call for equality. In claiming that these nonhuman apes had acquired a human language, these researchers argued for an egalitarian treatment of nonhuman apes, similar to how we treat other human apes.

The participation of the ape language researchers in this moral project for equality has had severe negative consequences for one of the signing apes, something which I have been a personal witness to. When the GAP book was published, the signing orangutan Chantek was living at the field station of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center of Emory University, near Atlanta. The people in charge at the field station were not amused by Lyn Miles’ contribution to the project and frustrated her attempts to visit Chantek. Fearful of the implications of Chantek as a linguistic ape, Chantek was isolated alone in a cage and neglected. Caretakers were not allowed to sign to him, even though he signed to them about his wants and needs. All of this led to serious boredom in Chantek and in response he ballooned into a very fat orangutan. Linguistic apes were thus seen as a threat by the biomedical establishment, which feared that further experimentation on nonhuman great apes would become prohibited, as it has indeed become in various countries around the world, including the Netherlands, though sadly not (yet) the United States.

During one of the many coffee breaks.

As I talked about in my first presentation this morning, I have analyzed the archives of all the signing ape projects and carried out a systematic study of the use of signs by the famous signing chimpanzees. The results of these investigations were that there was no evidence for a linguistic capacity in these apes. If one considers all the results from the various ape language studies (including those that examine the use of lexigrams by bonobos such as Kanzi), one can conclude that nonhuman great apes are able to understand hundreds of words or signs. But when it comes to combining symbols in a meaningful or grammatical way there is no solid evidence that the ape subjects are able to do so. Also, when it comes to the motivation for (symbolic) communication it seems that there is a qualitative difference between human and nonhuman great apes. The apes in the language studies use symbols more as a tool to request things from humans rather than use it for a rich variety of motivations as humans do. Thus we can see a difference in motivaton for using symbols between human and nonhuman apes. The psychologist Michael Tomasello has suggested that this originates in the fact that nonhuman great apes are more focused on competition in their communication, while human apes are more focused on cooperation. So, until new evidence comes forth, we have to conclude that only human apes have the capacity for language and that this amounts to a qualitative difference between humans and other apes.

Where does this conclusion lead to, when it comes to our morality towards nonhuman great apes? Are nonlinguistic apes due less, morally, than apes who have language?

Let me take a closer look at the positions held by Frey and Carruthers. According to Frey, for a being to have interests, it needs to have desires. But a being can only have desires, if it has beliefs. And for the particular capacity to have beliefs, Frey argued that language is necessary. What are we to make of Frey’s position? Is it true that language is necessary in order for a being to have desires? Let’s specify the subject and focus on a being’s desire not to be in pain. Take a rat in a laboratory who is inflicted pain in an experiment. If I understand Frey correctly, the rat may feel pain, but cannot have a desire to be freed of this pain. However, when we look at the rat’s nonverbal behaviour we can see that she shows signs of being in distress and that she tries to get away from the pain. In another more personal example, a few months ago, we brought our cat to the vet to examine his blood. First he got an injection to make him doze off. However, immediately upon this injection our cat jumped of the vet’s table, ran away and tried to hide in the corner, hizzing aggressively at anyone getting close to him. Attempts to pick him up again were quite fruitless. Does this behaviour not show a desire to avoid pain? Indeed, in animal welfare research a lot of studies have taken place in which scientists look at particular preferences of animals. Famous are Marian Stamp Dawkins’ preference tests of various types of housing for chickens, which showed that chickens prefer soft floors over wire floors, as well as preferring floors with wood-shavings and such in order to be able to dustbathe and perform other natural behaviours. How would Frey explain these preferences? As something else than desires? But does not my cat have a desire to be out of pain and the chickens a desire to live in more accomodating spaces under more natural conditions? Clearly it is possible for a being to have a desire without having the capacity for language. This implies, then, that it is possible for non-linguistic beliefs to exist. Frey disagrees with that assumption by claiming that language is necessary in order to have a belief. This is because in his view you cannot have beliefs, if you can’t distinguish between true and false beliefs, and to be able to do that, you need language. I do not see why, when we look at the past decades of animal cognition research where many nonlinguistic cognitive abilities have been demonstrated in all kinds of animals. This includes the capacity to form beliefs about the physical and social world that surround an animal. In the example of my cat, my cat must have had some form of belief that the vet was only out to hurt him rather than help him, judging us as nasty beings he had to get away from. Frey’s position seems close to the flawed hypothesis of several philosophers of language that language is necessary for thought. This view has long been considered to be incorrect, partly because of all the evidence for cognitive capacities in nonhuman animals, but also because we now ascribe desires and beliefs to nonlinguistic humans such as pre-linguistic infants. In conclusion, then, Frey’s arguments do not hold.

What about Peter Carruther’s view? Frey still ascribed a capacity for sentience to nonhuman animals, while Carruthers claims that all nonlinguistic animals are not even sentient. He argues that a being can only experience something if the being can think and reflect about the various states the being is in. And in order to think and reflect, language is necessary. Again, like Frey, Carruthers links thought or cognition to language. So, again, we can rebut his proposal by showing that nonlinguistic cognition is possible and existing in many nonhuman animals. Indeed, language research with great apes and border collie dogs has shown that though nonhuman apes and dogs do not have language, they are capable of understanding hundreds of symbols and therefore have concepts of all kinds of objects and actions in the world around them.

However, different from Frey, Carruthers claims that language is not only necessary for thought, but also for sentience. He argues that it is the linguistic terms for various conscious states that make them phenomenally aware. Only by having the linguistic labels of pain and pleasure can we experience these states and can we even be aware that these states are different from each other. In Carruthers’ view nonverbal pain behaviour in an animal does not demonstrate sentience. He believes that any behaviour can exist without a mind or a sentient being who experiences these behaviours. He makes reference to being able to drive a car automatically while being absent-minded, and to the medical phenomenon of blindsight, a brain disorder where humans do not experience seeing things, but where further tests show that they nevertheless did perceive things. He even comes up with the purely hypothetical and speculative case of Penelope, a woman who shows abundant pain behaviour, screaming loudly and trying to get away, but without ever feeling or experiencing any pain. I believe that Carruthers has lost himself here in a hypothetical, unreal world. It is true that certain behaviours may occur mindlessly, as in certain reflexes or when we automatically carry out certain actions that we long ago learned. However, Carruthers is taking this fact too far in claiming that even pain behaviour can exist without feeling or experiencing pain. His hypothetical Penelope has never been found by scientists. Instead, all current knowledge shows that human and nonhuman animals react with similar nonverbal behaviours to pain and indeed we share the same pain centers in the brain such as the amygdala. These similarities in brain and behaviour demonstrate that nonhuman animals are just as able to experience pain as humans. Explaining the nonhuman animal behaviour differently risks the peril of not even being able to ascribe pain and other feelings to humans. In conclusion, then, Carruthers is wrong in claiming that language is necessary for sentience. The various phenomenally conscious or sentient states such as pain and pleasure existed before language and only we humans with language then add a linguistic label to these states.

The absence of language in nonhuman animals thus does not imply that they do not think, nor that they do not feel. Consequently, absence of language in nonhuman animals does not call for an ethics in which humans are treated differently from all other animals.

Arguing for equality among all great apes based on the capacity for language, like the Great Ape Project and the ape language researchers have done, however, is also incorrect, now that these new studies have shown that there is no evidence for the linguistic claims of these researchers. A qualitative difference between humans and other apes thus exists, in that only human apes have language.

It is, however, a matter of argument whether cognitive abilities such as language or rich motivations for communication are morally relevant at all or not. When we look at egalitarian morality towards humans, qualitative differences in cognition or motivation are usually considered to be irrelevant for a morally equal status of all humans. In what is known as the argument from marginal cases, humans with mental or physical disabilities are considered worthy of moral consideration just as much as supposedly ‘normal’ humans. This is because in egalitarian views on human morality, the presence of sentience or phenomenal consciousness in all humans is considered to be a sufficient condition for a morally equal status.

In order to avoid the risk of being speciesist by limiting equality to humans only, equality should be extended beyond humans to include all beings capable of sentience or phenomenal consciousness. Thus, equality for all great apes, nonhuman and human, is still arguable, despite the absence of language in our nonhuman cousins. Indeed, current scientific knowledge and opinion shows more and more evidence and arguments for the presence of sentience or phenomenal consciousness in all vertebrate animals and possibly also invertebrates. With sentience or phenomenal consciousness as a sufficient condition, equality should thus be extended to all nonhuman animals.

Before I finish, I would like to say something that is well apt for this conference, where building bridges between science and animal organisations is an important goal. I have found that animal lovers and activists often get very angry and accusative, when scientists claim that there are qualitative differences in cognition or motivation between humans and other animals. Like a red flag to a bull, any qualitative difference between humans and other animals is jumped at with attacks, condemning the messenger scientists as creating a new or confirming an existing moral dichotomy between humans and other animals. I think that this is a very unscientific and above all, very unhelpful way of dealing with the results of animal studies. Humans and other animals have similarities ánd differences and it is senseless to deny this. Just like cheetas are better in running than humans, so can humans be more adept in using symbols than other apes. I hope that the animal liberation and animal rights movements can adopt a truly scientific attitude and reconcile itself with the existing similarities ánd differences among all animals on this planet.

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My lectures at the Minding Animals Conference

From Wednesday July 4 to Friday July 6 the second Minding Animals Conference will be held in Utrecht, The Netherlands, hosted by the Ethics Institute and Faculty of Veterinary Science at Utrecht University. Recently the two abstracts that I submitted for two lectures at the conference were accepted. They will be presented during two of the parallel sessions. Below are these two abstracts.

The first lecture is part of the theme Animal Capacities, session 2b: Higher order cognitive capacities in animals.

Have nonhuman great apes acquired a human language?

Since the beginning of the 20th century scientists have been interested to find out whether nonhuman great apes can be taught some form of human language. The first studies tried to teach spoken words to great apes, but failed to do so. From 1966 onwards, the Gardners started projects using sign language, with the chimpanzee Washoe as their first subject. These chimpanzees acquired signs and other projects soon followed: Patterson studying the signing gorilla Koko and Miles analyzing the use of signs by the orangutan Chantek. Other researchers such as the Rumbaughs used geometric symbols called lexigrams, teaching them to bonobos such as Kanzi. Most of the ape language researchers concluded that a form of human language had been acquired by their ape subjects. However, another project with a signing chimpanzee, the one by Terrace with chimpanzee Nim, obtained results that did not point to a linguistic explanation of the signing behaviour. This caused what has become known as the ape language controversy. What can we conclude about language in nonhuman great apes after these decades of research?

The field of ape language research has suffered from problems of method and interpretation. Many studies did not film the interactions between the apes and the humans, leaving room for errors of perception and memory and making it unable to examine the role of imitation in the apes’ utterances. Selective presentation of data has also been a major problem. The author analyzed the archives of all the projects with signing apes and found that particularly Patterson presented the data about Koko selectively, publishing data that seemed linguistic, but omitting the rest of the data that showed otherwise. The author also carried out a large, systematic study of the use of signs by Washoe and the other signing chimpanzees, analyzing hours of videotaped interactions between the chimpanzees and their longtime human companions. The results were that the chimpanzees mostly made 1-sign utterances, using object and action signs and request markers. Combinations of signs showed no semantic or syntactic structure, but consisted largely of stringing various signs in order to provoke their human companion into action. The communicative intentions of the chimpanzees’ sign utterances predominantly consisted of requests for objects and actions. Another systematic study that filmed all the behaviour, was carried out with Kanzi, demonstrating that he could understand hundreds of English spoken words. Unfortunately, no further reliable studies have been carried out. If we take the scientifically sound studies into account, we can draw the following conclusion about language in nonhuman great apes. The apes have demonstrated understanding of human words or symbols (an ability that has recently also been demonstrated in border collie dogs). When it comes to combining symbols into meaningful utterances like humans do, however, the apes do something different. They do not add a meaningful structure to combinations, but string symbols together in order to manipulate the humans into fulfilling their requests. With regard to the motivation for using symbolic communication, humans have a rich variety of different motivations for communication. The nonhuman apes, however, almost exclusively use symbols in order to request objects and actions from the human. Terrace called this an “acquisitive” motivation. These conclusions mean that it has not been possible to teach a human language to a nonhuman great ape and that a qualitative difference remains between human and nonhuman apes. A difference that may not have moral consequences, however.

The second lecture will be part of the theme Animal Ethics, session 4a: The moral relevance of socio-cognitive abilities.

Is absence of language in nonhuman great apes morally relevant?

The capacity for language has figured as a morally relevant ability in multiple animal ethics theories. Frey argued that language is a required capacity in order to have beliefs and desires and therefore interests. Carruthers claimed that language is a necessary ability to phenomenally experience mental states, argueing that nonlinguistic animals do not have sentience. In the Great Ape Project (GAP), set up by Singer and Cavalieri, the results from the studies with signing apes were used as an argument for equality among all great apes (human and nonhuman).

The author analyzed the archives of all the signing ape projects and carried out a systematic study of the use of signs by the famous signing chimpanzees. The results of his study were that there was no evidence for a linguistic capacity in these apes. If one considers all the results from the various ape language studies (including those that examine the use of lexigrams by bonobos such as Kanzi), one can conclude that nonhuman great apes are able to understand hundreds of words or signs, but when it comes to combining symbols in a meaningful way (grammar) there is no solid evidence that the ape subjects are able to do so. Also, when it comes to the motivation for (symbolic) communication it seems that there is a qualitative difference between human and nonhuman great apes. The subjects of ape language studies use symbols more as a tool to acquire things from humans rather than use it for a rich variety of motivations as humans do. Tomasello has suggested that humans are more focused on cooperation, with nonhuman great apes focusing more on competition in their communication. Until new evidence comes forth, we have to conclude, then, that only human apes have the capacity for language.

Where does this conclusion lead to, when it comes to our morality towards nonhuman great apes? The position held by Frey and Carruthers is considered incorrect. It is not our linguistic terms for different conscious states that make them phenomenally aware, but the emotional feel of various conscious states has primacy, to which we humans then add a linguistic label. Arguing for equality among all great apes based on the capacity for language, like the GAP has done, however, is also incorrect, now that these new studies have shown that there is no evidence for the linguistic claims of the ape language researchers. Nonhuman great apes thus appear to be qualitatively different from human apes. It is, however, a matter of argument whether higher cognitive abilities such as language or rich motivations for communication are morally relevant or not. The author argues that in our morality towards humans we consider qualitative differences in cognition or motivation to be irrelevant for moral equality (cf. the argument from marginal cases). Among humans, the presence of sentience or phenomenal consciousness is considered a sufficient condition for a morally equal status. In order to avoid the risk of being speciesist by limiting equality to humans only, equality should be extended beyond humans to include all beings capable of sentience or phenomenal consciousness. Thus, equality for all great apes, nonhuman and human, is still arguable, despite the absence of language in our nonhuman cousins. Indeed, with our current scientific knowledge, equality should be extended to all nonhuman animals.

I hope these abstracts have stirred up your interest. I would like to hear from you what you think of them. You can register for the conference by clicking here. A cheaper ‘early bird’ registration is still possible until April 27. Looking forward to meeting you at Minding Animals this July!

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Registration for new Hovo courses now open!

In 2011 I will be presenting my course Communicatie en taal bij dieren at still further institutes of the Hoger Onderwijs Voor Ouderen – HOVO (Higher Education for older people). My course on the many wonders of animal communication and the intriguing history of scientific research on possibly teaching a human language to nonhuman animals, has received wide interest.

This new year I will be giving my course at the HOVO Brabant Seniorenacademie at their location at Tilburg University. It will consist of 10 lessons on Thursday morning, starting on 27 January and ending on 7 April 2011. For the HOVO Leiden I will be giving the course in 8 lessons on Tuesday afternoon, starting on 22 February, with the last lesson on 12 April 2011. Registration for both courses is now open. You can find more information and register by clicking here for HOVO Brabant and by clicking here for HOVO Leiden.

The programme of my course Communicatie en taal bij dieren will consist of the following lectures:

  1. Communication and human language: Characteristics and definitions. Language development in human children.
  2. Natural communication of animals. Goals and modalities. The honeybee dances. The alarm calls of vervet monkeys and prairie dogs.
  3. Natural communication of animals. The songs and calls of birds. The communication of wales and other animals.
  4. Natural communication of the great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos.
  5. Language research with great apes. History. Experiments with spoken language and sign language. The world famous signing apes: the chimpanzee Washoe, the gorilla Koko, and the orangutan Chantek.
  6. The ape language controversy. Research with the signing chimpanzee Nim. Methodological pitfalls and errors in interpretations and conclusions.
  7. The recent use of signs by chimpanzees in interactions with humans. Systematic study and conclusions with regard to the linguistic nature of signing by great apes.
  8. The language research with the world famous Kanzi and other bonobos who communicate with lexigrams. Interpretations and conclusions.
  9. Language research with other animals: dolphins, sealions, Alex the parrot.
  10. How did human language evolve?

The courses will be given in the Dutch language, but passive knowledge of English is required, given that some of the videos and films that I’ll be showing at the lectures are in English without subtitles. Accompanying study material will consist of a reader/syllabus with major articles or book excerpts on the subjects of animal communication and language research with nonhuman animals. The powerpoint presentation of each lecture will be made available to those attending the course.

If Tilburg or Leiden are too far from where you live, don’t worry. I am in touch with several other HOVO institutes about giving my course in the Summer or Autumn of 2011. I’m looking forward to meeting you at one of my courses!

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New research on bonobos shaking their head as if to say NO

An article on bonobo head-shaking has just appeared in the scientific journal Primates by the investigators Christel Schneider, Josep Call and Katja Liebal from the Free University in Berlin and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. The article is called Do bonobos say NO by shaking their head? In this report new observations are described of bonobos shaking their head horizontally from side to side, in an apparent effort to prevent another bonobo from doing something. The scientists suggest that this head-shaking by bonobos may be a primitive precursor of the head-shaking behaviour in humans, which is generally associated with a negative connotation, being a head gesture that signals “no” in many cultures.

Head gestures have been described before in chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, but not in orangutans. Head shakes (moving the head horizontally from side to side) had been observed before in the African great apes, but these generally occurred when the apes solicited play from their conspecifics. Only two isolated reports exist of the head-shaking possibly signaling “no” in chimpanzees, by the Dutch scientists Adriaan Kortlandt (1969) and Frans de Waal (1982). The new observations by the German scientists provide further material that suggests that bonobos shake their head in situations where they are preventing (or trying to prevent) another bonobo from engaging in a certain activity. The observations were made of bonobos living in Dierenpark Planckendael and in the Leipzig and Berlin Zoo. The scientists report 13 videotaped situations in which particularly bonobo mothers shook their head when they were trying to inhibit or terminate some particular behaviour of their infant. In one example an infant was trying to climb a nearby tree trunk, but her mother pulled her back. The infant continued to try to climb the trunk till eventually the mother seized her infant by the leg and shook her head while looking toward her. However, the infant kept continuing towards the trunk, so after a while the mother pulled her back again, looked at her and shook her head once more. In another episode an infant was manipulating a piece of leek. The mother took the leek from her infant and threw it away. However, the infant recaptured the leek and while trying to take the leek from her infant the mother shook her head twice and threw the leek away again. The video of this last example, observed in the Leipzig Zoo, can be seen on the BBC Earth News website and a larger video on the National Geographic website. Further situations of head-shaking that are reported in the Primates article are the following. In one instance an adult male bonobo shook his head after an infant reached for the male’s food, and in another situation a mother showed head-shaking after an adult female took food away from her.

The researchers mention that the preventive communicative function of the bonobo headshaking expands the variety of motives underlying the use of gestures in great apes. They conclude, however, that further data are necessary to examine the possibility that head shaking in great apes may be a primitive precursor of the human head shake that expresses negation.

In the sign language projects by Beatrix and Allen Gardner, several chimpanzees were learned signs that were considered negatives, based on signs from the American Sign Language. They were the signs CAN’T (used when the chimpanzee was unable to do a task or answer a question, or refused something), ENOUGH (to stop routine activities such as a signing lesson), and NO. The sign NO was made by shaking the head horizontally from side to side, so this behaviour is similar to the spontaneous bonobo behaviour mentioned above. The Gardners report that their chimpanzees used NO to negate in reply to commands, questions and statements, and in response to human threats to throw snowballs or splash water at the chimpanzee. They also state that the chimpanzees made combinations with NO, such as BATH NO and BED NO (Gardner et al., 1989). Sadly enough, the Gardners’ work on signing chimpanzees is flawed by multiple problems of method and interpretation, one of them being that these observations were not filmed, leaving room for several errors of observation and memory (Rivas, 2003, 2005). In my analysis of the signing chimpanzees’ recent use of signs I found four instances of head-shaking in the videotaped interactions that I examined. These head-shakes were all done by Moja (see her picture on the right). However, when Moja shook her head the context did not suggest that she was protesting or preventing some behaviour from another chimp or human, unlike the clear contextual situations described for the bonobo head-shaking above that do suggest this preventice communicative function.

Further reading:

  • de Waal, F. (1982). Chimpanseepolitiek. Amsterdam: Becht.
  • Gardner, B.T., Gardner, R.A., & Nichols, S.G. (1989). The shapes and uses of signs in a cross-fostering laboratory. In R.A. Gardner, B.T. Gardner & Th. E. van Cantfort (Eds.), Teaching sign language to chimpanzees (pp. 55-180). Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Kortlandt, A. (1969). Chimpansees. In B. Grzimek (Ed.), Het leven der dieren, Band XI (pp. 14-49). Utrecht: Het Spectrum.
  • Rivas, E. (2003). GIMME GIMME GIMME. The recent signing behaviour of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in interactions with longtime human companions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Nijmegen, the Netherlands: Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen.
  • Rivas, E. (2005). Recent use of signs by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in interactions with humans. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 119, 404-417.
  • Schneider, C., Call, J., & Liebal, K. (2010). Do bonobos say NO by shaking their head? Primates, 51, 199-202.

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Ape language videos on YouTube

YouTube is an amazing site. It’s incredible how many videos people have uploaded to it. I use it a lot to find videos with medieval and renaissance music, which is a music genre I am especially fond of. I also love to find videos about things from my childhood and past to sit back in nostalgia. There are also quite some videos on YouTube about ape language research. I would like to draw your attention to the following interesting films and documentaries about ape language that have been put on YouTube. In 1976 the Franco-Swiss movie director Barbet Schroeder (known from films such as Barfly) made the movie Koko, le gorille qui parle (Koko, the talking gorilla). The film shows the how signing gorilla Koko lives and signs with Penny (Francine) Patterson, who taught signs to Koko and continues to study her signing up to this day. It also includes several parts with Roger Fouts and the signing chimpanzees Washoe and Ally at the Institute for Primate Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where they lived in the 1970s. You can watch the whole movie in 8 videos on the YouTube channel of tehinfidel. Click here to go to the first video of the movie and find the other seven parts of the movie. Another great ape language documentary is ChimpTalk, made by the BBC’s Horizon programme in 1993. It shows the history of the language projects with chimpanzees and has great parts showing the signing chimpanzees Washoe and Nim Chimpsky, as well as the lexigram using bonobo Kanzi. It also includes interesting interviews with the Fouts, Herbert Terrace and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Click here to go to the channel of Barbaste, who put the documentary there in 6 parts. Another very interesting YouTube channel with lots of ape language videos is that of J. Patrick Malone, a Ph.D. student in evolutionary psychology in Missouri. His channel is called PhD4NonhumanPrimates and includes several videos from the Gardners 1973 film Teaching sign language to the chimpanzee Washoe. Check out his channel by clicking here. The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where the bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha continue using lexigrams to communicate with humans has its own YouTube channel with multiple videos showing the apes using lexigrams. Click here to go to this channel. Finally, click here to go to my own YouTube channel. I haven’t uploaded videos there yet, but I have favorited many videos about animal communication and language research with animals and made a special playlist about this theme. Check out all of these interesting videos!

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