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Orangutan mutter

Now we know how speech evolved, or do we?


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.

Helpful Resources

If Animals Could Talk
by Dr Werner Gitt
US $10.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Kathleen B.
This so called “scientific” research smacks of desperation to me. Is this the best they can come up with?
So much to do about nothing! So much enthusiasm!
I agree with other commenters. I’m more impressed with my backyard Magpies & Butcher birds.
Cameron N.
Not to sound overtly utilitarian, but how much money has been wasted the world over for fruitless evolutionist endeavors? Some wide eyed errant evolutionist says we look like monkeys so let's prove it and gets funded millions to prove absolutely nothing.

Honestly, I'd like to see CMI do a side by side comparison of fruitless evolution research that has gone on and on for years like Ape Speech with the research costs that have been given to these obvious failed experiments.
Lucien Tuinstra
Yes, that would be an interesting endeavour, but I'm afraid we would have to spend countless hours of staff resources to just begin to scratch the surface. We'd end up in the same rabbit hole! I suspect many of our supporters are already of the same persuasion as you, but critics would likely not be convinced by such a report. There are probably scores of people out there that think the orangutan research is wonderful.
YingSoon C.
So are parrots more "evolved" for speech, since they can mimic human words? Why do we not see any birds that are more capable of "speaking" to each other then?
Bryan O.
Koko the Gorilla ([link removed]) seems to understand sign language very well. She knows 800 signs. They call it GSL [Gorilla Sign Language]. It just shows the intelligence that the Creator gave animals and does not show that we are related. Her language is more than just reward based.
Lucien Tuinstra
Thanks for your comment.

I learned that Koko knew more than 1000 "words" (= signs) before she passed away in 2018. These signs have (largely) been taught by Penny Patterson over a period of 40 years. We can learn about other creatures, like apes, by studying them and even teaching them things. The capability for Koko to have learned 1000 "words" during its life, still pales in comparison to the many more words children learn in a much shorter time period. Has an ape learned to talk? Not really, but it is interesting to see what things they can learn.
Mark P.
Academic evolutionary biology seems like a pyramid scheme. People who believe that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” need an unending stream of papers “shedding exciting new light on the origins of [whatever]” else it will collapse under its own weight.

When evolutionary biologists give kazoos and rewards to orangutans, it suggests that there is “publish or perish” artificial selection for them in an academic environment, but it isn’t analogous to natural selection (differential reproduction) for orangutans outside a laboratory environment.
Brock W.
Paul S is onto something! I taught my dog to bark when I say "Speak!" And she does bark (NOT speak) because I conditioned her to. I rewarded her for the correct behavior, so she responds to my command in a way she knows will earn her a reward.
ALL those "scientists" did was TRAIN the animals, just like I did. The funny thing is I train my dog in the same way they trained the orangutans. I waited for her to bark. Then I said "Speak!" And gave her the treat. Eventually she made the connection between barking and "Speak!" = get a treat.
The only reason they feel comfortable claiming it's part of our "evolution" is because they trained an ape. Wouldn't it be laughable (or maybe sad) if they trained a dog (or a bird as the article points to) to do the same? Looks like they are our ancestors too.
They also assume vocal communication is a precursor to speech. That's bananas! Just about every land mammal uses some type of vocalization to communicate. This does not equal understanding language (speaking)!
Lastly, dogs (and many other animals) can think in abstract terms in addition to apes. If you hide a treat under a cup, they know it's still there.
Sorry to you who are reading this long-winded (pun intended) comment, but there is so much wrong with their conclusions, it drove me ape!!
It really is sad that they are willingly ignorant.
Dee M.
question to ask those "scientists", do males normally inhale their grunts while females normally exhale their grunts? Did the male get the treat for the first "grunt" he did an that happened to be an inhale grunt? That means he was rewarded for one thing and then re-rewarded again and again for doing the same thing. This is just learned behavior through reward process. No different than training animals.
Dan M.
Show me a bunch of monkeys, discussing a set of blueprints with hard hats and I'll be impressed. They live in trees people! They don't build buildings, use complex communication to do so, manufacture automobiles, and airplanes, or go to outer space unless deliberately sent by us thinking, communicating, inventive human beings. We exist worlds apart from the animal kingdom, (We only, are created in His image). Stop trying to make a monkey out of me! You're just embarrassing yourself, out of bad research and much-wasted money. …
The fact is, observable, science is completely useless when it comes to proving origins, (the past). You need an eye witness account, not pointless speculation. This world is soon to get a rude awakening! The truth will make you free (John 8:32). A lie only irritates! He, (YHWH) is worthy of our praise!
Geoff C. W.
@Paul S: ROFL!
Did they check what the apes would do if they put an orange stick in their mouths? Possibly the same thing.
And who might have been around to teach them to talk? Or did one of them one day fall out of a tree, and while jumping about in pain, said 'banana'... and it all went from there.
This is just so much nonsense... and how much money has been spent on it???!!!
Give it up, people, and do something useful with your lives.
Peter C.
We may as well say that monkeys like to smoke cigarettes as the scientific evidence shows that if you keep them captured in a cage and force them to smoke that shows that wild monkeys would evolve the skills to smoke also.....
Paul S.
Even dogs can understand the word for walk in any language (but "don't pee in the house" falls on deaf ears).

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