Re: Paper on chimp culture

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Thu, 17 Jun 1999 16:36:44 +0200

From: <>
Date: Thu, 17 Jun 1999 16:36:44 +0200
Subject: Re: Paper on chimp culture

Mark M. Mills wrote:

> At 11:15 AM 6/17/99 +0200, you wrote:
> >The only difference between man and animal is symbolic language. Again
> this is so
> >self evident that I expect that someone will discover this within a few
> years and that
> >he/she will make it to the cover page of Nature: "Hey, the difference
> >is that we can talk! Incredible finding, isn't it?".
> I respectfully disagree with you on this point. While the point remains
> controversial, there is a large body of work supporting assertions that
> chimps are quite competent with symbolic language.
> Please be careful with the 'this is self-evident' argument.


> I'd like to hear what other arguments you might have on the inability of
> chimps to use symbolic language.

They are quite competent with symbols and syntax, right - I fully agree (just
think of signing Koko the gorilla, (counts as a chimp here)), but they do not
use it under natural conditions, isn't it? Only when another species which
has started to use symbolic language teaches them, their hidden capacities
are revealed. So, we can agree.

Why then did only we started to use symbolic language? Because only we have
innate grammar, as chomskyans claim? Given the above agreement between us
(that also chimps are able of syntax and semantics with human symbols), I'd
definitely say no. Because language is so advantageous that it can act as the
driving force for natural selection towards better language (as Pinker
claims)? The latter is flawed reasoning, I think, and also - if it is so
advantageous, then one wonders why it occurred only in one species? See
manuscript for many reasons of why this is difficult.

Part of the answer might be what John Skoyles and I published in J. Memetics:
humans happened to have several preadaptations which enabled us to develop
spoken language, whereby the given mental capacities - like categorization
and generalisation, present in several animals - could interact with sonic
symbols. An important preadaptation is our incredible musicality, providing
us with - among other characteristics important for language - breath
control. Chimps didn't do it, largely because they are simply unable to
produce such a variety of sounds and intonations. Once you can do that, in
combination with already present general mental capacities (mentalese),
language emerges as the result of a bootstrapping process, a truly cultural
(memetic) event. It is comparable to how interacting robots develop
grammatical rules as the result of a random process of interactons, or how
children develop their own grammatical rules, given a few starters. Or to how
a brain gets wired, given a few basic rules? Some call it 'self-organisation'
although I dislike this term (not the concept), since it is a contradictio in

(Language manuscript also at:

Though all of this is not all that self-evident. :-)


Mario Vaneechoutte
Department Clinical Chemistry, Microbiology & Immunology
University Hospital
De Pintelaan 185
9000 GENT
Phone: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59

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