Different in degree or kind: chimp 'language' (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Thursday, December 06, 2018, 18:17 (164 days ago) @ David Turell

Mostly grunts and hoots, but they have body language:


"In chimpanzee societies, a whistle followed by a high-pitched hoot seems to mean, “I’m leaving.” Energetic grunts probably say “good food.” And a hip thrust could signal that chimp is ready to get frisky.

"These rough translations result from decades of research on chimp communication. In addition to revealing what apes are saying (big surprise: food and sex), the results also reflect why and how chimps communicate — and how this compares to human language.

"One of the biggest questions about chimp communication centers around the notion of intentionality. Why do chimps communicate the things that they do? The answer might seem obvious, but there’s actually an important distinction to be made between innate, involuntary reactions to stimuli and calls and gestures that are produced consciously in order to communicate internal things like thoughts and feelings.

"The first type of communication includes things like laughing and crying, and it doesn’t necessarily take consciousness to produce. The second requires something called theory of mind, or, the understanding that other beings have thoughts.

"Possessing an advanced theory of mind indicates a level of consciousness, and it’s helping researchers assess how intelligent and aware animals like chimps really are. Research so far indicates that they do comprehend that others have thoughts — at least to a degree.


"Chimps don’t have the vocal anatomy to produce as many sounds as humans. They rely on a limited set of calls, which have been classified into four call types — hoos, grunts, barks and screams — and dozens of subtypes. However, the apes have a much larger repertoire of non-verbal communicative gestures, such as the mouth stroke and exaggerated scratch. Over 70 such gestures have been observed in chimps and bonobos, combined. Together, gestures and calls provide enough substrates for potentially extensive communication.


"Recent experiments support chimps having first-order intentionality, by showing wild subjects could control their calls and use them tactically.


"But it’s unclear from these studies if chimps possess second-order intentionality, the desire to change the thoughts of others. Obviously we can’t ask the apes, “Did you alarm huu to get your friends to hide or to get your friends to know to hide?” But other experiments suggest chimps have more limited theory of mind than humans. Based on how they behave when food is hidden from group members, chimps seem to grasp that others can be uninformed, but not misinformed (probably).

"Differing degrees of theory of mind might contribute to differences between ape communication and human language. With high-order intentionality, people talk to bond, gossip and make agreements. Somewhere around first or second-order, most chimp messages are declarative imperatives like “good food” and “sex now.” They communicate the essentials — food, sex and imminent danger — but skip the small talk."

Comment: We may resemble them in body form but the minds are a million miles apart.

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