Re: Paper on chimp culture

Bill Benzon (
Mon, 21 Jun 1999 16:00:39 -0400

Date: Mon, 21 Jun 1999 16:00:39 -0400
From: Bill Benzon <>
Subject: Re: Paper on chimp culture

Mark Mills wrote:

> I suspect it took a million years for human verbal expression to produce
> continuous expression of more than 100 words.

I suspect this is not the best way to think about it. Language as we know it is
probably 50K - 250K old or so. What existed before language -- perhaps some form
of song or chant -- probably functioned a bit differently. It may well have been
a stable activity without necessarily have a stable vocabulary.

> What would a 4 or 5
> generation study of 'apes without human contact but observed by humans'
> prove regarding chimp ability to independently maintain language ability?

I would make a good start. And if they fail even for a single generation, that
would tell us something too.

> On the other hand, one could do memetic studies on chimp language use.
> How much effort is required to produce 100 word vocabularies in humans?
> in chimps? How many words does a human mother transfer to her baby in
> one year? How many signs does a signing chimp mother transfer? Does
> memetic agility measured by vocabulary size produce selective advantage
> for a chimp culture? What is the average 'life span' of a chimp generated
> sign? How quickly do chimps 'mutate' signs?

I'd think you could get information on the human side of these questions in the
developmental literature. And the chimp literature surely has counts of the
number of signs the chimps know.

William Benzon
Senior Scientist
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