On the Myth of Ape Language

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Matt Aames Cucchiaro

Electronic mail correspondence, 2007/2008

CUCCHIARO: As a prominent figure in the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ of the 1950s, you were quite vocal in your criticism against Behaviorism—the dominant academic field of psychology at the time. In your Review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, you challenged his belief that language is acquired through training and in principle could be learned by other animals as well. Joseph Ledoux, neuroscientist at NYU, says that ‘during the Behaviorists reign, for example, it was assumed that psychologists could study any kind of animal and find out how humans learn the things we learn. This logic was not only applied to those things that humans and animals do, like finding food and avoiding danger, but also to those things that humans do easily and animals do poorly if at all, like speaking.’

CHOMSKY: He’s correct, dramatically so with regard to “radical behaviorists,” like Skinner, but pretty much across the board. A curious fact is that they did not seem to realize how remote their doctrines were from serious biology.

CUCCHIARO: In Daniel Gilbert’s (Harvard psychologist) recent bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness, he says that psychologists who’ve said that humans are the only animals who can use language were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs.’ I told him that you’d be interested to know about any examples of chimps using language, and he gave me a Wikipedia article to forward to you on ‘The Great Ape Language’.

CHOMSKY: Thanks. I’m well familiar with this work. It’s an insult to chimpanzee intelligence to consider this their means of communication. It’s rather as if humans were taught to mimic some aspects of the waggle dance of bees and researchers were to say, “Wow, we’ve taught humans to communicate.” Furthermore, the more serious researchers, like Dave Premack, understand all of this very well.

CUCCHIARO: It seems that even after the numerous studies conducted in the 1970s — and well beyond — had clearly failed, the notion of chimps possibly learning language still persists. What do you think when researchers to this day, such as Susan Rumbaugh (ape trainer), claim that Bonobo chimps can draw signs and refer to it as language similar to humans’ ability?

CHOMSKY: It’s all totally meaningless, so I don’t participate in the debate. Humans can be taught to do a fair imitation of the complex bee communication system. That is not of the slightest interest to bee scientists, who are rational, and understand something about science: they are interested in the nature of bees, and it is of no interest if some other organism can be trained to partially mimic some superficial aspects of the waggle dance. And one could of course not get a grant to teach grad students to behave like imperfect bees. When we turn to the study of humans, for some reason irrationality commonly prevails — possibly a reflection of old-fashioned dualism — and it is considered significant that apes (or birds, which tend to do much better) can be trained to mimic some superficial aspects of human language. But the same rational criteria should hold as in the case of bees and graduate students. Possibly training graduate students to mimic the waggle dance could teach us something about human capacity, though it’s unlikely. Similarly, it’s possible that training apes to do things with signs can teach us something about the cognitive capacities of apes. That’s the way the matter is approached by serious scientists, like Anne and David Premack. Others prefer to fool themselves.

CUCCHIARO: I don’t agree with your analogy using bees. Humans and chimps share almost entirely the same DNA [98.5%] and if a chimp had successfully learned ASL [American Sign Language] then wouldn’t it at least provide some wonderment into how language may be acquired?

CHOMSKY: I don’t agree with you about the interpretation of the DNA figures, but if we assume you’re right, then the absurdity of trying to teach apes language is even more obvious. Would it be of any interest to train grad students to more or less mimic apes? We would learn nothing about apes from the fact that grad students can be trained to more or less mimic them — try to get an NSF contract to study that — just as we learn nothing about humans from the facts that apes can be trained to mimic humans in some respects. Language is a notorious failure, exactly as any biologist and paleo-anthropologist would have expected. But if, say, Nim had succeeded, we would still have learned nothing about language acquisition, gaining neither more nor less wonderment, though we would have a biological problem. Namely, if apes have this fantastic capacity, surely a major component of humans extraordinary biological success (in the technical sense), then how come they haven’t used it? It’s as if humans can really fly, but won’t know it until some trainer comes along to teach them. Not inconceivable, but a biological problem, and about the only conceivable scientific consequence of the ape-language experiments, except what they might teach us about ape intelligence by training apes to deal with problems that are outside their normal cognitive range. This is all sentimentality of the worst sort.

CUCCHIARO: There’s a recent book out called Nim Chimpsky, chronicling the project in the 1970s where researchers were trying to disprove your theory that language is exclusively a human attribute. It’s an interesting read.

CHOMSKY: Interesting story about poor Nim. The experiment was carried out by a very serious experimental psychologist, Herbert Terrace. A convinced Skinnerian [student of Behaviorist, B.F Skinner], he expected that if an ape was brought up just like a human it would be a little human. He had some very fine assistants, including some excellent former students of ours, and others who went on to be leading figures in the field. The experimentation was done with meticulous care. There’s a book, called Nim, which describes it, with great enthusiasm, claiming at the end that it was a grand success and the ape is ready to go on to great things. Then comes the epilogue. When the experiment was over, a grad student working on a thesis did a frame-by-frame analysis of the training, and found that the ape was no dope. If he wanted a banana, he’d produce a sequence of irrelevant signs and throw in the sign for banana randomly, figuring that he’d brainwashed the experimenters sufficiently so that they’d think he was saying “give me a banana.” And he was able to pick out subtle motions by which the experimenters indicated what they’d hope he’d do. Final result? Exactly what any sane biologist would have assumed: zero. Then comes the sad part. Chimps can get pretty violent as they get older, so they were going to send him to chimp heaven. But the experimenters had fallen in love with him, and tried hard to save him. He was finally sent off to some sort of chimp farm, where he presumably died peacefully — signing the Lord’s Prayer in his last moments.

CUCCHIARO: You’ve been quoted as saying, ‘It’s about as likely that an ape will prove to have a language ability as there is an island somewhere with a species of flightless birds waiting for humans to teach them to fly.’ The book, Nim Chimpsky, remarks at the fact that Apes have been able to sign probably about as well as children first learning; the implication being that if we call what children do, ‘language,’ then why not have the same standard for apes and call what they do, ‘language’?

CHOMSKY: That’s about like saying that Olympic high jumpers fly better than young birds who’ve just come out of the egg — or than most chickens. These are not serious comparisons. For whatever reason, the study of human higher mental faculties is pervaded by a curious form of irrationality, foreign to the sciences.