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Creation 28(3):40, June 2006

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Aping humans

Can chimps really be taught basic human language?
An evolutionist researcher debunks some of the wilder claims


Photo by Chad Littlejohn, sxc.hu Chimp

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.

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.

References and notes

  1. Sternberg, S., Humans, chimps almost a match, usatoday.com, accessed August 2005. Return to text.
  2. Pilcher, H., What the chimp means to me, Nature 437(7055):20–22, September 2005. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Dan M.
Any semi-intelligent animal can be taught to do tricks but can they conceptualize. The obvious answer is no! They don't build structures or form intricate society's, (they pack like any other animal). My dog can be taught to recognize rudimentary commands but I can't conversate with her because she is incapable of that high level of understanding no matter how much I teach her.
The vast chasm between humans and animals is evident. we are physically and mentally far superior because we are made in Gods image. The amount of information change or addition to jump from chimp to human being is staggering and cannot be explained by evolutionists. Just a couple of reasons evolutionists are frustrated is because of the discoveries made by DNA research and the missing links of all the created kinds. The observations just don't support the evolutionist paradigm.
Atheism and by extension evolution, is a belief system to replace an accountable God with a do whatever feels good religion.
When you understand this, every action and reaction of an evolutionist makes sense.
We need to pray for their salvation because they are destined for eternal separation from their creator and that is a terrible thought.
Robert W.
Makes one wonder which part of forty million DNA variations evolutionists don't understand. Coupled with the fact that not one of the humans would allow a blood transfusion from a chimp upon themselves.
Sad that one can go to any talent show which features animals and you may see pigs and dogs proving they are teachable as well. According to the "propaganda", as this CMI writer well described the evolutionists reach for drama, apes are so closely matched with humans totally ignores a parrots ability to actually speak the language of his trainer.
No ape will ever be able to do that, it's not in their God-given ability to do so.
Of course many apes are intelligent.
Go to the animal talent show. Be amazed at what our Great God has done with them all.
william S.
When the evolutionists bring a chimpanzee who told a human that there are 40 million differences in their genetic code, then I may give evolution credibility.
Dennis S.
If monkeys evolved into chimps and chimps evolved into apes, why are there still monkeys, chimps, and apes?
Warren Nunn
You may want to rethink that. The following is from our article Arguments we think creationists should NOT use:
“If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes today?” In response to this statement, some evolutionists point out that they don’t believe that we descended from apes, but that apes and humans share a common ancestor. However, the evolutionary paleontologist G.G. Simpson had no time for this “pussyfooting”, as he called it. He said, “In fact, that earlier ancestor would certainly be called an ape or monkey in popular speech by anyone who saw it. Since the terms ape and monkey are defined by popular usage, man’s ancestors were apes or monkeys (or successively both). It is pusillanimous if not dishonest for an informed investigator to say otherwise.”
Stephen S.
Years ago (while I was still in college), the big news was about Washoe, the "talking" gorilla. The local paper (Reno Gazette-Journal) gushed about this wonderful creature that had mastered human speech. The reality was that Washoe "communicated" to her handlers through a series of simple hand signs and pressing appropriate buttons on a very simplified keyboard. I remember thinking that rats and mice can be taught to "communicate" as well by pressing appropriate buttons that would then reward them for making the right choice. Given this, Washoe's communicating would most likely have been "aping" what her handlers had trained her to do.
Wes D.
First comment: Pointedly witty and concise. You made me laugh. God laughs at the foolishness of humans who deny his authorship of the world. Let us be a light to them with God's compassion before it is too late for them!
Jesus Rules!
Bruce B.
Describing '40 million differences' as 'nearly identical' would more than bamboozle a chimp, it would probably fry its brains!
People see and believe what they want to see and believe. Evolutionists frequently claim the 'moral' high ground for both logic and reason but are incapable of seeing the foolishness of their own position. To repeat an earlier quote, 'the theory has become more important than the evidence necessary to sustain it'.
Sadly, unless the Holy Spirit touches them, they're going to remain lost and that is tragic.
Hans G.
So, apes can learn speaking. Did they learn it from other apes, the higher evolved ones I mean, or the ones, who think they are intelligent? Obviously it didn't happen by chance...........

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