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Orangutan mutter

Now we know how speech evolved, or do we?

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Published: 7 May 2020 (GMT+10)
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay.comape

Knobi and Rocky are two of a number of orangutans (Pongo sp.) that have been involved in speech experiments running for many years. Knobi, a female, was born on 30 September 1979. Rocky is an adolescent male, born on 25 September 2004. Recently (August 2019), it was suggested that their latest vocalisations “could advance the understanding of (spoken) language evolution”.1 Let us examine these claims.

A few years earlier, a paper in Scientific Reports reported evidence for “dynamic and interactive vocal fold control” in Rocky.2 BBC Earth excitedly reported that he had “become the first to mimic human speech”.3 Essentially this consisted of ‘do-as-I-do’, when researchers changed their tone or pitch. The orangutan mimics the human being who in turn hands out an edible reward for each similarly-sounding grunt—the video clip is very telling.4 The closing comments of the BBC article might be taken to imply that the ape actually spoke words (which it didn’t): “words alone don’t equal human speech. Languages have grammar and syntax, which some believe may even be hardwired into the human brain. If other primates are born with this special skill, nobody has seen evidence of it yet.”3 What was the point of this BBC article?

Confusing human-mimicry with true speech

Misleadingly, the article stated that “Primates are often better [than us] at using their hands and bodies to communicate”,3 suggesting they prefer that method of communication. Most readers would naturally take these words to mean ‘better than us humans’. Indeed, her internet article was titled: “The orangutan who speaks like a human”—yet another misleading headline trying to insinuate that, as humans look at the great apes, “we may be more alike than we’d thought”.3

In reality, the gulf between the communicative abilities of various species of apes and ourselves remains as wide as ever, whether vocalisations or gesticulations. Has any ape ever devised a sign-language? A chimpanzee that can use four distinct sounds to represent four particular concepts (banana, grapes, juice, or yes)—for which it had been taught to use simple signs—is not a talking ape.

Drhaggis at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0kazoos
A kazoo makes a sound by someone humming (not blowing) into it.

Kazoo playtime

Coming back to the 2019 article, what’s the latest on Rocky (and Knobi)? “Our results provide the first positive diagnostic test of vocal production learning in great apes, namely active voicing, during novel voiced vocal production in orangutans. [emphasis mine]”1 This statement, by researchers Adriano Lameira and Robert Shumaker, resulted from the orangutans’ reaction to a kazoo.5 “Rocky and Knobi activated the membranophone … within 11 and 34 minutes, respectively”.1 Rocky used ingressive airflow (breathing in), Knobi egressive airflow (breathing out). These two distinct ways of vocalising by different orangutans “validated that both individuals deployed voluntary vocal fold oscillation for the production of novel vocalizations, thus, providing conclusive evidence for active voicing in orangutans”.1 This is designed to sound scientific but may be paraphrased as, ‘both orangutans decided to make humming sounds’—which is rather underwhelming, as the clip below demonstrates.6

As stated, this follows several years after Angela Saini had speculated that these orangutans are “shedding exciting new light on the origins of how we talk”. However, this is wild exaggeration because it didn’t do anything of the sort.

The truth of speech

If speech mimicry was so crucial in gaining insights, rather than studying apes, we should be investigating birds. Research continues to reveal that birds possess a far greater linguistic capacity than chimpanzees. Obviously, according to evolutionary thinking, birds are far more distantly related to human beings than primates.

That some apes can use tools, understand taught signs and even spoken words (among other things) is uncontroversial. However, this in no way means we share a common ancestor with apes as evolutionists assume. Just because there is some evidence that apes are—to a degree—able to think in abstract terms, as well as control the timing, pitch, and length of their grunts (comparable to syntax), it is still a far cry from talking. True speech requires the transmission (from sender to recipient) of coded information. Although a code can be transmitted in various forms—for instance letters, sounds (Morse code), bits (binary digits in computers), elevations (Braille), and even ape-grunts—it requires a mind to encode a message. Not only that, but no communication takes place if there is not a recipient that can decode the message. Apes lack a Broca’s speech area in their brains.7 This is essential for vocalisation of our thoughts in human speech. Even if somehow this Broca’s area evolved, a transferring system consisting of motor nerves would still need to have evolved simultaneously, in order to drive the target vocal muscles.8

Ultimately, one can either choose to believe that the acquisition of sophisticated speech all happened by chance, goal-less processes, or that God created humans in his image with the innate ability to speak (Genesis 2:23) and sing His praises:

“behold, a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, … crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”” (Revelation 7:9–10).

References and notes

  1. Lameira, A. and Shumaker, A.R., Orangutans show active voicing through a membranophone, Scientific Reports 9(12289), 23 August 2019 | doi:10.1038/s41598-019-48760-7. Return to text.
  2. Lameira, A., et al., Vocal fold control beyond the species-specific repertoire in an orang-utan, Scientific Reports 6(30315), 27 July 2016 | doi:10.1038/srep30315. Return to text.
  3. An extended version of the printed article can be found here: Saini, A., The orangutan who speaks like a human, bbcearth.com/blog/?article=the-orangutan-who-speaks-like-a-human, accessed 17 December 2019. Return to text.
  4. This can be seen in the 1:46 video clip of Durham University following the link under reference 3. Return to text.
  5. A membranophone, which operates by speech or humming, but does not work whilst blowing into it. Return to text.
  6. Scientists are gaining insight into human speech – by teaching orangutans to play the kazoo, YouTube.com, 19 September 2019. Return to text.
  7. Sodera, V., One Small Speck to Man: The evolution myth, Vija Sodera Productions, p. 504, 2009. Return to text.
  8. Sodera, ref. 7, pp. 502–504. Return to text.

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