Re: Paper on chimp culture

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Fri, 18 Jun 1999 09:02:40 +0200

From: <>
Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 09:02:40 +0200
Subject: Re: Paper on chimp culture

Mark M. Mills wrote:

> Mario,
> 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.

But far less efficient than human infants, especially for spoken language. Because
they lack our anatomical speaking capacities and probably are far less efficient
in picking up syntactical meanings of all the different intonations we use.

> 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.

Well, I thought you had read our language article. It should be obvious that I
perfectly agree with this.

> 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.

No problem, but the system language existed and was being used. So it was not
invented from scratch by the chimps. I don't say chimps are unable to learn
language, the claim is that language was not developed by chimps (despite their
possibility to learn it when it exists). So, humans had some capacities which made
it possible that language emerged 'spontaneously' from their interactions. That is
one of the claims of our article: not that we are specially gifted with language
genes, but that several preadaptations (adaptations for other reasons than
language) came together, from which language arose as a cultural phenomenon.

> 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.

Not symbolic though. Only we did that, I'd say (although I learn further on that
you disagree).

> I use this data to support my assertion that we are born with memes, they
> are never 'transmitted.'

I think we have the ability to acquire memes, but are not born with them. It is
important to make a difference between instinct, spontaneous learning and
learning.1. Instinct: capacities you have, whether you see someone doing it or
not. Birds will fly, we will walk upright, whether or not we see examples. NO
environmental stimuli are necessary.
2. Learning: e.g. going to school to learn how to write and read. Takes a lot of
effort and requires stimulation (punishment and reward).
3. Spontaneous learning: the ability to learn things spontaneously is there, BUT
environmental stimuli are essential. A healthy newborn will acquire language
spontaneously, BUT only if it hears people speak. If not, it will be handicapped
severely and after the time window is passed for learning language it will have
tremendous difficulties to produce something which looks like language.
So: we are not born with memes, but with the ability to acquire spontaneously
memes. Still memes have to be around before we can acquire them.

> 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
> language.'
> 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.

I should disagree, but have no evidence to support my view. Do you have evidence
that they talk to theirselves? On the other hand, I would like to agree.

> If this is the case, your question ought to be: 'why then did only humans
> externalize primate self-talk?'
> Mark
> ===============================================================
> This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
> Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
> For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
> see:

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

=============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see: