The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Chimpanzee Language and Culture

There has been strong resistance from the scientific community to the use of the terms "language" and "culture" to describe animal communication and learned behavior. But this resistance seems to me to be essentially irrational and unscientific in nature.

When a species has at least 50 separate vocalizations and gestures known to human observers (*) in use (as is the case for some chimpanzee bands), this is clearly "language." It may not be syntactical language (it may for instance be limited to "noun-verb" at most in terms of its parts of speech, and may be forced to use noun combinations instead of what we would think of as "adjectives"), but it is still language.

And when there is a whole complex pattern of behavior, which must be learned rather than appearing instinctually; which includes technologies such as the use of medicines and hand tools; and which differs from band to band (**), what can we call this, logically, other than "culture?" It may be a very simple culture, but isn't a very simple culture what one would expect to find in creatures of high but still subhuman average intelligence?

[2009 Update: And in just three years we've found even more evidence of technology among the nonhuman great apes. In particular, female chimpanzees in one band break off sharp sticks and use them as hunting spears, and some other apes blow through leaves to modify their hoots. Again, this isn't atom bombs and rocketships, but it is technology and it's cultural rather than instinctual].

We need to expand our concept of "human" -- in the moral and civil-rights sense -- to include at least a few other terrestrial species. If we can't accept orcas or elephants or even bonobos (***) as kindred spirits, what chance do we ever have of getting along with extraterrestrial aliens, when we expand out into the Universe?

This is an important point. Since some words or phrases may be spoken more than others, and since the meaning of some may be altered in context by the use of others, this means that there are probably a LOT more than 50 possible utterances, both because there are vocalizations/gestures that humans have never observed and because some utterances may mean different things in combination with others -- "big fruit" and "big leopard," frex, would provoke VERY different reactions in the other chimpanzees!

In the case of some animals, we have discovered that different groups speak different "dialects" of their species signalling system. It is possible that these differences may extend to the existence of different languages, which would both be wonderful and unfortunate -- wonderful in terms of the implicit level of intelligence; unfortunate in that it would mean that we would have to learn (for instance) the chimpanzee languages as opposed to language if we wanted to communicate with all wild chimpanzees.

I emphasize bonobos because they are among out closest living nonhuman kin, and because morphologically and perhaps behaviorally they may be very close to our ardapithecene ancestors. Bonobos even look, to the untutored eye, more human than do chimpanzees. And they are fairly easy to get along with -- unlike chimps, they rarely go berserk. They are also somewhat smaller and weaker than chimpanzees -- though most bonobos are still stronger than most humans.

Moral recognition goes to moral agents: how have they demonstrated that capability?

and I responded by saying

In a primitive and simple fashion, as one might expect of primitive and simple creatures.

All great apes have a notion of reciprocity in relationships: they remember who has been nice to them and who has been nasty to them, and tend to treat those who have been nice to them in the past nicely in the future, and vice versa (*). Franz Van Waal, in Good Nature (which discusses the evolution of proto-morality in intelligent animals) goes into detail about the appearance and relative complexity of systems of reciprocity and expected reciprocity in apes and other intelligent animal species.

[2009 Update: Further research has shown that ape concepts of "fairness" include not just basic reciprocity but the expectation of even dealing -- in other word an ape will feel cheated if his partner hogs the bigger share of the gains. Third party apes watching can apparently feel outrage even if they aren't gaining or losing by the deal, proof that they are modeling the situation of the apes in the deal. This is a clear basic version of human concepts of "fairness."]

I mean, you're not going to find complex philosophy emnating from creatures whose intellects are, on the average, subhuman. Koko's "Be good. Be polite" is about as far as an ape moral code goes (**). But it is the key to pretty much all functional human moral codes, too, so I wouldn't knock it.

I would say that it is not "good" for humans to kill apes for bushmeat, or even in laboratory experiments, when we don't need to, and especially when the species (in the cases of bonobos and gorillas) are extremely inoffensive to humans. Nor is it "polite" for us to treat our close evolutionary kin in so cavalier a fashion.

I actually agree with your argument that rights require responsibilities, and I believe that at least the great apes (certainly bonobos and gorillas) are capable of acting responsibly to the minimum degree required to acquire the right not to be killed save as capital punishment under the law. Bonobos and gorillas rarely kill their own kind (***); humans are from their point of view scary creatures with bad tempers and mysterious powers, and it would not be too hard to acculturate most great apes to the point where they would be safe unless severely provoked (****).

We are, as a result of the language experiments, approaching a position now in which we will be able to integrate the other great apes into our society. If we grant them some (limited) civil rights, it will be as junior partners. If we don't, it will be as chattel property -- as slaves.

I know which I'd rather see.

This is rendered more complex, and often more cruel from our point of view, by their dominance systems. The workings of their dominance systems tend to be least cruel in the bonobos and gorillas, and most cruel in the chimps and orangs. Human dominance systems, as expressed in primitive societies, tend to be well toward the "cruel" end of that axis, as might be expected of the "killer apes."

With some unexpressed elaborations regarding differing degrees of "goodness" and "politeness" owed to different individuals: attitudes which Koko in particular can be demonstrated to live by even if she has trouble putting it into a formal expression. But then don't most of us live by moral codes whose details are beyond our formal expression?

Also, note the difference between "good" and "polite." "Good" is how well one treats someone qua someone, while "polite" is the deference owed to someone due to their position in one's social hierarchy. So Koko's (terse) point is actually rather accurate and inclusive. Koko would be "good" to Penny Patterson because she loves her, and "polite" to her because as her adoptive mother, Koko owes her respect -- something that a wild gorilla would understand quite well, too, as gorillas have lifelong loyalties to family and friends.

The big exception, regarding gorillas, is that a silverback who takes over a family that he is not closely related to may engage in infanticide. However, (1) this is in a "state of nature" (literally) and (2) humans do the same thing under the same circumstances!

As in by a direct physical attack, which is what set that young male gorilla in the Dallas Zoo off a year or so back.


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