Can chimps really be taught basic human language?
An evolutionist researcher debunks some of the wilder claims
Photo by Chad Littlejohn, sxc.hu
The more that the origins controversy ‘hots up’, the more we seem to be getting a relentless barrage ‘reminding’ us of how ‘close’ we are to our alleged chimpanzee cousins. But a lot depends on who’s telling the story.
For instance, a report in USA Today1 had this opening volley: ‘Humans and chimpanzees share an almost identical genetic inheritance.’ Given that the same report pointed out that there were 40 million differences in the genetic code, one is struck by the blurring of the line between fact and propaganda.
Also useful for ‘educating’ the public into evolutionary ways of thinking are the alleged ‘language achievements’ of chimps such as Washoe and Kanzi, who have been taught to use symbols, via signing and keyboards, similar to the way that small children use words.
However, Gary Marcus, a cognitive scientist at New York University and an evolutionist, thinks this is not really language. He pours the cold water of skeptical reality upon what he calls ‘a silly game to see how much a chimp can act like a human’.2
Marcus points out that chimps learn words one at a time, whereas toddlers learn them in explosive bursts. Moreover, chimps lack what the article calls the ‘linguistic silver bullet’—the capacity to ‘combine bits of language into larger units’. This is called ‘recursion’, and is only one of the many skills he thinks are likely to prove to be crucial to real language. Recursion greatly opens up the range of possibilities, and enables the speaker to ‘appreciate the views of others’.
As Marcus indicates, even the most sophisticated chimpanzee would be completely bamboozled by a sentence such as ‘She knows that I know where the peanut is hidden’.2
Unfortunately, the general rebellion of fallen mankind against its Creator, as described in Romans 1:1-32, means that there will always be a deep vested interest in denying the obvious fact that humans are vastly different from apes—consistent with their being made in the image of God.
Bottom line: we might get some emails protesting against the conclusions of this article, but they won’t be sent by Kanzi, or Washoe, or any other ape.
- Sternberg, S., Humans, chimps almost a match, usatoday.com, accessed August 2005. Return to text.
- Pilcher, H., What the chimp means to me, Nature 437(7055):20–22, September 2005. Return to text.