Ongoing Obsessions

Ongoing Obsessions

I stumbled upon Shaw’s essay about primates and language about a year ago as I was looking up model APA papers.  As a writing tutor working with ESL students, I was fascinated by syntax, how different cultures arranged words and meaning. At the time, my older sister was a sign language interpreter sent on strange assignments and I hoped that she might someday be called upon to teach sign language to a chimpanzee. It never happened, but she still knows sign language and chimpanzees still exist. I can only hope. I guess this would be a lot funnier if you knew my older sister.

But I found the essay fascinating, and I was intrigued by how passionate both sides felt about chimps using language. Not long ago, the usage of tools was thought to be a uniquely human characteristic, and I’ve often wondered whether complex language is truly out of the animal world’s reach. I can, of course, understand why some might feel threatened or upset by anything that narrows the definition of what it means to be human.

The second article I found in today’s New York Times. Apparently, advanced primates have the ability to talk but don’t. It’s incredibly strange to me that such a tiny, perhaps fortuitous shift in a primitive brain led to humans developing “theory of mind,” the desire to share thoughts without self-benefit. Wade explains, “Luckily for [early humans], all the underlying systems of perceiving and producing sounds were already in place as part of the primate heritage, and natural selection had only to find a way of connecting these systems with thought.”

On the other hand, according to experts, primates have thoughts but no interest in sharing them. Especially in the early days, it seems like so little separated humans from apes, from genetics to appearance to the ability to vocalize sounds. What especially fascinates me is what occurred in early humans to account for the change, for this development of “theory of mind.” In Biblical times, a tongue of flame accompanied linguistic gifts –was it so with the first spoken sentence? I’m not an expert in primates or linguistics, but I will say that, after years of observing my cat, animals are as smart as they need to be. When my cat feels the need to enter a locked room, he can be surprisingly ingenious. But most of the time, when his food bowl is full and his surroundings remain unchanged, he doesn’t spend a lot of energy doing anything.

This complacency, for lack of a better term, was found in early humans as well–it took humanity a long time to go from drinking from cupped hands to drinking from bowls. Sometimes, it seems like we’re in a hurry to distinguish ourselves from the natural world’s complacency (“satisfaction” might be a better term for it), devising up with unnecessary invention after invention at such an accelerated pace that you’d think we were trying to outrun something.

I also think scientists underestimate how smart animals can be. There have been reports of chimpanzees using tools as well as a recent surprising report of an octopus–an invertebrate!–using tools. (The chimpanzee used a stick to extract termites from a nest, the octopus used coconut shells as armor.) I’m personally a bit excited that our definition of the human realm is being challenged: too long have we relied on basic reasoning and problem-solving abilities to define us as human, to judge intelligence, to judge worth. If this new scientific debate pushes us in the opposite direction and encourages us to further value art, music, and–yes–literature, so be it. It might not be long before chimpanzees can compete with Ty Pennington, but I suspect it will be a while before they can compete with Woolf and Melville.


Chimpanzee using tools

Octopus using tools

Octopus using tools (video)


Links from Diana Hacker, The New York Times, MSNBC, The National Geographic Society, and The Museum Victoria.

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