One comment on “Speak for yourself

  1. I don’t know about these other chimps with their symbols, but it requires a tremendous effort in wishful thinking believing that Koko “speaks sign language” when you read the transcripts. She probably doesn’t fare much better than a dog that were trained to do something analogous. It has been likened to “facilitated communication” with children with severe autism, that is, what they supposedly communicate is virtually made up by humans or non-autists making an effort to make some sense of what really has none. (Except when it’s something like “food!”)

    That may in part be caused not only by their lack in some language/speech-related neuronal/genetic traits (FOXP2, which curiously, has evolved convergently in parrots), but also with fine-grained motor coordination. Chimps and gorillas are not only strong by sheer muscular advantage, but they also are lacking in nervous control to tone down their strength. So, even if they were more “exapted” for speech by other means than vocalizations, the extra effort in subtler sign-language movements would likely delay any possible development of a real ability.

    I think that even a spoken language developed for gorilla/chimp-friendly vocalization would possibly yield much better results than sign language. I guess researchers could try to study their natural communication and expand their “vocabulary”, but training infants.

    But the most interesting experiment, albeit also ethically questionable, would be to have a genetically engineered chimpanzee or gorilla with a human FOXP2. I guess that it’s likely they would come scarily close to talking, if not really, unequivocally talking, despite of how theoretically anatomically inapt they are. Their anatomical condition possibly approaches that of some human malformations that don’t totally prevent speech.

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