Tuesday, March 11, 2008

So simple, even a monkey can do it

Complex thought - Complex language; both an aspect of only one creature on the planet.


Recent research on putty-nosed monkeys (Cercopithecus nictitans) in Nigeria has given science reason to think otherwise. In this article the researchers found the monkeys had varying shouts of warning depending on the nature of the threat - causing other monkeys to react in a situation specific manner.

Why is it that findings like this seldom surprise me? Still, I delight in them and, in this case, it's a bit more remarkable in that the research wasn't even directed at our closest cousins in the primate family. This would indicate that the evolution of this characteristic probably took place long before our split with chimps on the evolutionary tree.

What's the significance of this? Well, what was the significance of our ancient ancestors developing these skills? They are the abilities of an evolving species that would indicate the possibility of future, even more complex, thought and speech. And, it shows yet another feature of Homo sapiens that isn't all that unique.


the chaplain said...

Another segment of the incredible wealth of information, emerging every day (it seems), that confirms the connections between all forms of life. It's really fascinating stuff.

PhillyChief said...

I was going to email you, but it was too late. I caught a show on NatGeo about dogs, but it was the last scheduled airing of it. Anyway, they found remarkable abilities recently. One profound one was the ability to infer the meaning of a word or image based on other known words or images (there's a smartsy word for that but I'm not smart enough to remember it). They thought this was limited to primates. First there was a dog that if you gave him 3 known toys and one unknown, asked for the unknown toy by name, he'd bring it, deducing that you obviously aren't referring to the things he does know. Next, the experimented with other dogs showing a screen with two images. If the dog pushed the one image, food would come out. If he pushed the other, nothing happened. After figuring out which one to push, they then showed a new image and the no food image. Having learned pushing the no food image yields no food, the dogs all pushed the new image.

The other clever thing was watching eyes and facial expressions. Primates don't readily respond to ours because they never had a need to. Dogs have, so it's become this genetic instinct I guess. They had three people sit with two of them covering their eyes. Who did the dog go to? The one whose eyes it could see. They also found the dogs respond to eye cues and made a big fuss about that but I've known that shit for years.

I'd also say some dogs exhibit this trait of the putty nosed monkeys. Supposedly my dog's breed, Norwegian Elkhounds, have the broadest range of produceable sounds of any dog breed. My last one had specific sounds (barks, grunts, moans, etc) for having to pee vs poop, was hungry, knew a storm was coming, someone coming was known or not, and a few other things. My current one is a little, well, "special", but she's starting to refine her sounds more. Neither of them were like the stupid Lassie show where the dog just barks the same damn bark for Timmy in the well, Timmy taken by indians, Timmy molested by priest, etc.

Lifeguard said...

I'm constantly astonished by what we learn animals are capable of. Whether its bonobo monkeys or Alex the Grey Parrot, it blows my mind how intelligent they are.

Interesting post!

John Evo said...

bonobo monkeys

CHIMPS, damn it Lifey!

Philly, I discuss Darwin with my cats. They say "if natural selection is so great, why didn't it cause you humans to know dogs are evil"?

Incredible cats, eh Chappy?

The Exterminator said...

Well, f'Chrissakes, some bird species have dozens of different calls, each of which seems to have some meaning -- to them.

It's just arrogance on the part of anyone who thinks that humans are special in any way -- other than our ability to demonstrate hubris.

And in favor of the intelligence of all species other than humans: None of them elected George W. Bush as their leader.

Lifeguard said...


Funny you should say that about Bush. My granmother has said of our President that he is "un mono parado!"

I monkey who stands up straight.

Infidel753 said...

Many chimpanzees, and some bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, have been taught vocabularies in the hundreds of words in American Sign Language, which they can use with some actual (though very simple) grammatical structure. In at least one case I know of, a chimpanzee taught ASL to another chimpanzee without human intervention.

Even after decades of study, we don't know all there is to know about how great apes in the wild communicate. It seems unlikely that they would have the level of language ability we've discovered unless they were using it somehow in a state of nature.

Vervet monkeys in the wild make at least eight distinct sounds which have identifiable meanings, like words, even though they aren't used in a grammatical structure.

The rudimentary roots of almost every human ability and instinct can be found among the great apes and sometimes even among monkeys. Why should language be any different?

John Evo said...

Lifey said:

I monkey who stands up straight

Thanks for supporting Darwin.

The Ridger, FCD said...

ASL using chimps & gorillas have words but no syntax. That's been borne out by tons of research. Not to denigrate their mastery of a very foreign means of communication, but they don't have Language.

And putty-nosed monkeys certainly don't have syntax. To paraphrase David Beaver - oh, heck, hang on, I'll quote him (from May 18, 2006):

here is a putty-nosed monkey phrasebook you may find useful:

pyow: hey everyone, get away from the lower branches, or some ground beast might get you.
hack: hey everyone, get away from the canopy or an eagle might get you.
pyow ... hack: hey everyone, wherever you are, move.

In short, it's interesting, but not as groundbreaking as reporters have been making it sound.

The recent research into corvids (crows and their kin) is fascinating, though. They're terrific tool-makers and users.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Grrr. Forgot to quote. Beaver stops at "move" and I start again at "In short".

Infidel753 said...

ASL using chimps & gorillas have words but no syntax. That's been borne out by tons of research. Not to denigrate their mastery of a very foreign means of communication, but they don't have Language.

Barring some definition of "syntax" contrived to exclude them, this isn't true. I'm aware of the efforts by people like Chomsky to refute ape language ability, but this is a field I've studied in a fair degree of detail, and apes can indeed use and understand words in the context of grammatical structure, albeit on a very simple level.

As Frans de Waal said, "People such as primatologists and zookeepers who work on a daily basis with apes, always have a high opinion of apes' intelligence and abilities. Those who attempt to minimize apes' language abilities and cognitive skills are always people with little or no first-hand experience with apes."

Lifeguard said...

This all reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where Kramer gets into a fight with a chimp at the zoo. When Kramer refuses to apologize to the chimp and insists on the chimp apologizing to him, the zookeeper says "Mr. Kramer, he's an innocent primate!"

And Kramer replies "Well, so am I!"

the chaplain said...

Incredible cats, eh Chappy?

Well, cats are okay, but dogs rule. The last dog I had used to come and get me when the phone rang in another room where I couldn't hear it. Pretty smart critter.

Grumpy Lion said...

Cats are absolutely the smartest. Mine have kept my house dog free for two decades.

PhillyChief said...

I think as far as different animals using different sounds for communicating, I have no doubts about that for there are plenty of examples. What I find interesting about my dog experiences is that in needing to communicate things to me, they created their own sounds or combinations of sounds unique to the message needing to be communicated and also that they remembered those sounds. They've created their own little languages, maybe not as sophisticated as Jodie Foster's "chick-a-paaaay" (what the hell was that movie?), but impressive nonetheless.

The Exterminator said...


Was that movie Nell? To show how aurally oriented I am, I don't remember a damn thing about it except for that phrase.

PhillyChief said...

Yeah, I think that was it. Not so much anymore, but for a long while whenever I or Mrs Chief stuttered or struggled with a word, the other would blurt out a "chick-a-paaaay!"

We're strange like that