Re: Paper on chimp culture

Mark M. Mills (
Thu, 17 Jun 1999 14:32:24 -0400

Date: Thu, 17 Jun 1999 14:32:24 -0400
From: "Mark M. Mills" <>
Subject: Re: Paper on chimp culture
In-Reply-To: <>


At 04:36 PM 6/17/99 +0200, you wrote:
>> 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.

Actually, other primates pick up language the same way humans do, they
assimilate it by observing what is going on in their environment. One can
argue that no human is 'taught' language. Reading and writing seems to
require 'teaching,' but human infants pick up language without any
particular instruction. As long as an infant is exposed to language-using
adults, it will develop language proficiency. The exception is autism or
hearing/speech impediment.

The apes that have picked up sign language generally went through a
'training' period, but the researchers have mixed opinions on the degree to
which 'training' worked. Several researchers say their infant chimps
picked up sign language exactly as humans do, by watching and
experimenting. At least 2 chimps have picked up language with no human
instruction at all. One picked it up entirely from its mother. The other
picked it up by sitting in on it's mother's training sessions. In this
case, mom never learned the icon system being taught, but baby started
signing without prompting.

Admittedly, chimp and ape language skills never advances past that of a
human child of 2 or 3, but there is little difference in how humans and
other primates acquire it. Research on various creole languages show human
children inventing fully complex languages from simple pidgin parental
chat. While the symbols seems to be picked up from the
environment/culture, the capacity and desire to express seem inherited.
Basic language ability is not taught, but acquired. In this sense, all
primates 'invent' their own language.

I use this data to support my assertion that we are born with memes, they
are never 'transmitted.' We configure our inherited memes during childhood
by observing our environment. At birth, the memes are 'blank' or devoid of
symbolic reference. During infancy, our internal desires push us to pick
appropriate symbols to configure the meme.

In this model, other primates inherit a similar, but less developed set of
memes. By studying chimp culture, we get a better idea of what our modern
memetic inheritance evolved from.

>Why then did only we started to use symbolic language? ...

I don't agree with your assertion that 'only humans started using symbolic

Many apes using human sign language mastery are observed talking to
themselves. One could argue that this is a side effect of 'learning sign
language,' but other explanations exist. I see no reason to rule out the
possibility that all healthy mature apes talk to themselves. Before apes
picked up human sign languages, one could argue that they had insufficient
cognitive ability for this, but we now know that they do.

If this is the case, your question ought to be: 'why then did only humans
externalize primate self-talk?'


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