Time and again, we are told that humans are not that special after all: abilities previously thought to be uniquely human are now purportedly evident amongst the great apes. ...It is funny how animal researchers are similar to that great-aunt Bella, and do not recognize their own mindreading limitations.
Take the example of vervet monkeys. Groundbreaking research by Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney in the 1980s on vervet monkeys in the wild showed a seemingly sophisticated method of communicating about the proximity of predators. Living on the edge of the savannah, vervet monkeys have many predators. Their chance of survival would therefore be greatly increased if they were able to respond appropriately to different vocal warnings. Indeed, it was found that the vervets have specific alarm calls for specific predators: the alarm call for an eagle is different from that for a leopard, which in turn is different from that for a python. ...
In fact, further research shows that the caller’s vocalisations are not ‘intended’ for other animals. ...
In The Language Instinct, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker persuasively takes apart many of the ‘preposterous’ claims made about apes’ and other animals’ language abilities. He stresses that we all have a tendency to anthropomorphise – thinking that animals are capable of a lot more than they are in reality. ‘People who spend a lot of time with animals are prone to developing indulgent attitudes about their powers of communication’, he writes, giving the example of his great-aunt Bella who ‘insisted in all sincerity that her Siamese cat Rusty understood English’.
Friday, August 20, 2010
Orangutans are not remotely like humans
Helene Guldberg debunks ape mindreading: