Ape-Language Studies - Part I

This article was first published in Faith & Reason, 19:2, 3 (Fall 1993), pp. 221-263. Permission to print kindly granted by Christendom College Press, Christendom College, 134 Christendom Avenue, Front Royal, Virginia, 22630.


By Dennis Bonnette, Ph.D.


Originally published in 1993, this article was the basis for chapter five of my book, Origin of the Human Species, whose second edition appeared in 2003. My book explores questions raised by evolutionary theory – ultimately focusing on what we may confidently say about human origins, and showing that belief in Adam and Eve as the human race’s first parents remains reasonable, despite many modern evolutionists’ skepticism. This article serves the book’s overall aims by defending the uniqueness of man and of his essential superiority over lower animals, including other primates.

The typical evolutionary mindset holds that man is merely a highly developed animal, different in complexity, but not in kind, from lower animals. Thus, the naturalistic mentality of many animal psychologists anticipates that subhuman primates will tend to approach human beings’ mental powers, manifested in part through alleged ape linguistic abilities. Thus, the contemporary obsession with ape-language studies, complete with claims that chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and certain other subhuman primates, have been taught to use various forms of sign language and can now understand the meanings of hundreds of words, form sentences, and communicate effectively with humans and even among themselves. These claims feed the inevitable conclusion that man himself no longer holds a preeminent place in the animal kingdom, that his is but one among many other species, and that continued belief that God made him in His image and gave him dominion over all lower creatures is simply an outdated religious myth.

I examine subhuman linguistic claims in two steps: First, I show that even some evolutionist natural scientists, who have analyzed ape-language studies, conclude that apes have not yet mastered true language. In 1979, some researchers challenged ape-language claims by arguing that such behavior can be explained by non-linguistic mechanisms such as (1) simple imitation, (2) the Clever Hans effect, (3) the anthropomorphic fallacy, and (4) rapid non-syntactical signing to obtain immediate sensible rewards. Two of the most important claims – (1) that apes could combine signs creatively in novel sequences and (2) that they showed knowledge of syntactic structure – were said to be based merely upon anecdotal data, not upon acceptable scientific methodology.

Second, I use philosophical analysis to demonstrate (1) why human intellective knowledge is needed to possess genuine language, and (2) why it will be forever impossible for subhuman primates to exhibit true linguistic ability. Materialist explanations of animal and human behavior miss the crucial distinction between sense and intellect. Animals possess sense knowledge alone, whereas man possesses both sense and intellective knowledge. Intellective knowledge is the hallmark of the human spiritual soul, and is not shared with our animal friends. Man exhibits intellective knowledge by (1) forming abstract concepts, (2) making judgments, and (3) reasoning from premises to conclusions in logical fashion. Subhuman animals’ sensory abilities, including imagination and sense memory, enable them to manipulate sensory data and use inborn natural signs to communicate instinctively, and even to be taught by man to use humanly-invented signs. Still, they do not understand the meanings their signs express, nor form judgments, much less engage in reasoning. The hallmark of all ape behavior, including trained language use, is its relentless focus on immediate sensory rewards, such as food, toys, sex, or interaction with other animals. Abstract goals, such as earning a diploma or getting a better job or serving God, mean nothing to apes and will not beget sign language responses.

Proof of my claims here requires (1) showing that ape-language research data can be explained in terms of mere sense knowledge, and (2) showing that such behavior must be so explained by positive proof that apes lack intellect. The first task is achieved largely in terms of the abovementioned scientific criticisms and also by pointing out that computers, which actually understand nothing and are not even alive, can imitate human linguistic behavior simply by manipulating data. Apes, with relatively large brains and elaborate sense faculties, can also accomplish such impressive feats, but this need not mean that they possess true linguistic comprehension any more than computers do.

The second task, to show that subhuman primates’ linguistic behavior must be read as mere sensory activity, requires positive demonstration that apes lack true intellect. Four formal effects demonstrate true intellect: (1) genuine speech, (2) true progress, (3) knowledge of relations, and (4) knowledge of immaterial objects. In their wild state, with no human influence, animals, including apes, (1) fail to develop true language, and (2) fail to make genuine progress. Even in a domesticated environment, they still (3) show no understanding of real relationships (such as cause and effect) -- merely learning to associate images, and (4) clearly fail to develop the sciences and religious beliefs typical of human abstract understanding. While details of this proof require reading the article itself, the conclusion is that subhuman primates and other animals fail all four tests of true intellective activity. Hence, man alone possesses true intellect.

The radical difference between mere animals and true human beings is manifested acutely by the insurmountable distinction between the sense image and intellective concept. The image is always particular, concrete, imaginable, and has sense qualities, such as when we form the image of an individual human being or a particular triangle. But, the concept is always universal, abstract, unimaginable, and lacks all sense qualities, as when we understand the meaning of terms, such as “humanity” or “triangularity.”  Human beings have both kinds of knowing, whereas brute animals are restricted to knowledge of images alone. Again, full details are in the article.

We grasp fully the radical limitations of brute sense knowledge only when we compare it to man’s rich, expansive intellectual life which enables him to study all the sciences, to create exponential technological progress, to embrace transcendental religious belief systems, and even to reflect upon his own human nature so as to grasp its spiritual dimensions – destined to eternal life, and to the knowledge of and union with God Himself. These insights demonstrate that evolutionist claims about ape-language studies pose no threat whatever to human essential superiority. Man still has his God-given dominion over beasts – and always will.


The purpose of this article is to enquire whether, in the face of evidence gained from recent ape-language studies, it is still possible to delineate clearly between human intellectual life and brute sentient life—to refute the claims of the sensist philosophers who would reduce all human knowledge and activities to the level of mere sensation and sense appetite. This question cannot, and need not, be answered exhaustively in this relatively short study of the matter. In order to respond in the affirmative, it will suffice that we be able to show that even the most sophisticated sensory activities of animals bear no legitimate threat to the radical superiority of the human intellect—an intellect whose spiritual character is rationally demonstrable.

Nor is it our intent to present here the formal proofs for the spiritual nature of the human soul which have been offered by St. Thomas Aquinas and others.1 Rather, our primary focus will be upon an examination of evidence and arguments which reveal the inability of lower animals to present a credible challenge to the uniqueness of human intellectual life.

It has long been observed in nature that certain lower forms of life often imitate the activities and perfections of higher forms. For example, the tropisms found in certain plants—while not actually constituting sensation—nonetheless deceptively simulate the sensitive reactions proper to animals alone. So too, the human-like behaviour of many “clever” animals has caused much contemporary confusion on the part of, not only the general populace, but also even presumed experts on animal behaviour.

In great part this confusion has arisen because of the success of Darwinian evolution and its attendant reductionism in dominating for much of this century the academe of those natural sciences which deal with animal and human behaviour. Thus psychologists, zoologists, biologists, anthropologists, etc., tend to view human behaviour as nothing but an extension in degree, not in kind, of lower animal behaviour. Nowhere is this tendency more acutely seen than in the controversies arising out of contemporary ape-language studies.

For more than half a century various attempts have been made in a small number of research projects to teach chimpanzees and other primates to talk. The most successful techniques have involved the use of American Sign Language and computer-based artificial language systems. Great publicity has attended these efforts since the 1970s with claims of hundreds of words being “understood” by these subjects, new complex words being invented, and even sentences being formed with two-way “conversations” taking place, not only between trainer and primate, but even between primate and primate! To top

Dissent and Defense

Yet, by 1979, a simmering academic controversy about the legitimacy of primate linguistic credentials burst into view of the general public with the publication of two critical articles in Psychology Today2—one by Columbia University psychologist H. S. Terrace, the other by University of Indiana anthropologists Thomas and Jean Sebeok. Through a very careful re-evaluation of the signing activities of the subject of his own research project, a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, Terrace concluded, “I could find no evidence of an ape's grammatical competence, either in my data or those of others.”3

The Sebeoks, moreover, argued that animal researchers have been engaging in a good deal of unwitting self-deception in accepting as linguistic competence behaviour which is actually the result of unconscious cuing. What they refer to is what is widely called the Clever Hans effect—named after a famous turn-of-the-century “thinking” horse whose “intelligent” answers to questions were exposed by Berlin psychologist Oskar Pfungst as simply the result of unintentional cues being given by his questioners.

The defenders of apes' linguistic abilities engaged in immediate counter-attack—producing an intellectual battle which rages to the present day. It is important for us to note that almost all the participants in this debate are natural scientists who are of one mind concerning man's materialistic and evolutionary origins. The input of dualist philosophers and theologians has, thus far, been virtually nil. Thus the critics of the “linguistic” apes, it should be observed, operate largely from a perspective which views man as nothing but a highly developed animal and which prescinds utterly from any philosophical arguments for the existence and spiritual nature of the human soul.

Among the ape's defenders, we find Suzanne Chevalier-Skolnikoff who points out that the famed signing chimp, Washoe, has taught another chimp, Loulis, how to sign—although she concedes, “Loulis learned his signs mainly by imitation...”4

Chevalier-Skolnikoff also presents the following remarkable claims about ape behaviour:

Deception, “lying,” and joking are all behaviours that logically are dependent upon mental combinations, or symbolization, and, like other stage 6 behaviours, they cannot be cued. As mentioned above, deception, lying, and joking all appear in stage 6 in nonsigning apes, and I have observed this kind of behaviour both nonlinguistically and in conjunction with signing in the gorilla Koko during this stage. Consequently, I have no reason to doubt, as some authors have, Patterson's reports that Koko tells lies and jokes.

Besides lying and joking, the gorilla Koko also has been recorded to argue with and correct others. Arguing and correcting are dependent upon comparing two viewpoints of a situation—existing conditions with nonexisting ones—and therefore require mental representation.5

Intentional lying, deception, joking, arguing, and correcting—if actually demonstrable from the research data—would, of course, bespeak unequivocally the presence of intellective activity on the part of apes. Yet, this is precisely why we must be so very careful about drawing such inferences from the available evidence. We must always be cautious not to assign facilely to higher causes that which could readily be explained in terms of lower causes. To top

The Anthropomorphic Fallacy

While this is scarcely a proper context in which to explore and critique the multiple data upon which Chevalier-Skolnikoff's judgments are formed, it must be noted that such judgments necessarily flow from an interpretation of the concrete details examined. And herein lies the greatest danger to the human researcher who attempts to “read” the animal subject. The Sebeoks put the matter thus:

Investigators and experimenters, in turn, accommodate themselves to the expectations of their animal subjects, unwittingly entering into a subtle nonverbal communication with them while convincing themselves, on the basis of their own human rules of interpretation, that the apes' reactions are more humanlike than direct evidence warrants.6

In a word, what the Sebeoks describe is the infamous anthropomorphic fallacy, that is, the error of attributing human qualities to animals based upon our nearly irresistible temptation to put ourselves in the brute's place, and then, to view his actions in terms of our own human intellectual perspectives. The universality of this human tendency is such that even experts in animal behaviour frequently fail to avoid its pitfalls.

The specific content of such habitual anthropomorphism by ape researchers is thus described by the Sebeoks:

Time and again researchers read anomalous chimpanzee and gorilla signs as jokes, insults, metaphors, and the like. In one case, an animal was reported to be deliberately joking when, in response to persistent attempts to get it to sign “drink” (by tilting its hand at its mouth), it made the sign perfectly, but at its ear rather than its mouth.7

Clearly, this sort of suspicion strikes at the heart of Koko's claimed performance of “deception, lying, joking, etc.”

In fact, the synergism of anthropomorphism and the Clever Hans effect is seen by psychologist Stephen Walker as justifying inherent skepticism about any and all claims made on behalf of American Sign Language trained apes.

The most important type of unwitting human direction of behaviour which has been interpreted as the product of the mental organisation of the apes themselves is in the “prompting” of sequences of gestures in animals trained with the American Sign Language method.... As practically all instances of sequences or combinations of gestures by chimpanzees or gorillas are made in the context of interactions with a human companion, there is virtually no evidence of this kind which is not vulnerable to the charge that the human contact determined the sequence of combinations observed.8

Yet, not all ape communication techniques employed by researchers have involved the use of American Sign Language. Plastic symbols, computer-controlled keyboards, and other artificial devices have been utilized in order to lessen, or possibly eliminate, human influence on the process.

In defending the research of Savage-Rumbaugh—who used a computer-controlled keyboard system—psychologist Duane M. Rumbaugh insists that the evidence shows the clear capacity for categorization free from any Clever Hans effect:

For our apes the symbols are referential, representational, and communicative in value. Data obtained and reported by Savage- Rumbaugh at that convention made it clear that the chimpanzees Sherman and Austin categorize learned symbols as foods and tools (nonedibles) just as they categorize the physical referents themselves. These data were obtained from tightly controlled test situations in which the animals had no human present in the room at the keyboard to influence their choice of keys for purposes of categorizing.9

In this, though, as in all other instances of supposed lower primate “intentional” communication, the fundamental problem which remains is the influence of man in “programming” the training and responses of the animals, and then, man's tendency to anthropomorphize the interpretation of the results of this very influence. The results never seem quite as definitive to the sceptics as they do to the researchers who nearly live with the subjects they wish to “objectively” investigate. The inherent difficulty posed for those who would completely eliminate the Clever Hans effect is well-stated by the Sebeoks.

Apes simply do not take part in such man-made laboratory tests without a great deal of coaxing. The world's leading authority on human-animal communication, Heini Hediger, former director of the Zurich zoo, in fact deems the task of eliminating the Clever Hans effect analogous to squaring the circle—“if only for the reason that every experimental method is necessarily a human method and must thus, per se, constitute a human influence on the animal.”10

Thus we see that the Sebeoks support Hediger's claim that total elimination of the Clever Hans effect would constitute an actual contradiction in terms—a goal entirely impossible of attainment.

Escaping from Clever Hans

And yet, it is important not to rest the entire case against “talking” apes upon the Clever Hans effect as championed by the Sebeoks. Walker points to research done by Roger Fouts, the Gardners (with the famous Washoe), and Savage-Rumbaugh as appearing to escape the charge of unintentional cuing. Concerning the latter, he writes:

When two chimpanzees exchanged information between themselves, using the computer-controlled keyboard system, with experimenters not in the same room (Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1978b), the evidence seems relatively robust.11

It would appear that the phrase, “Clever Hans effect,” is now being given a meaning which includes two distinct aspects: (1) unintentional cuing of the animals and (2) any human influence upon the animals. While the Sebeoks and other critics are undoubtedly correct in insisting that human influence is inherent in every ape experiment devised by man, yet it is also clearly not the case that unintentional cuing can explain all significant ape communicative achievements.

Given exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, training by researchers, several novel and rather impressive ape communication performances—free of all unintentional cuing—have been reasonably well documented. What is referred to here is not merely the well-known abilities of trained chimpanzees and gorillas to associate arbitrary signs with objects, nor even their ability to string together series of such signs in what Terrace and others dismiss as simply urgent attempts to obtain some immediately sensible reward.

Rather, more impressive experimental results are now forthcoming, e.g., the Savage-Rumbaugh experiments in which two chimpanzees were taught to communicate and cooperate with each other—using a computer keyboard to transmit information revealing the location of hidden food.12 In another experiment, after extensive training and prompting, the same animals learned to cooperate with one another by handing over the correct tool needed to obtain food when their primate partner requested it—again by use of computer symbols and without human presence during the actual experiment. Walker offers his inferences there from:

There can be little doubt, in the case of this experiment, that the visual patterns used in the keyboard system had mental associations with objects, and that the chimpanzee who punched a particular key did this in the expectation that the other animal would hand him a particular tool.13

Still later, these same prodigious chimpanzees advanced to seemingly quite abstract symbolic associations:

When they were trained with arbitrary symbols assigned to the two object categories “foods” and “tools” Austin and Sherman successfully selected the appropriate category, when shown arbitrary symbols which were the names for particular foods or tools (Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1980). That is, they were able to label labels, rather than merely label objects: for instance if shown the arbitrary pattern indicating “banana” they responded by pressing the key meaning “food,” but if shown the symbol for “wrench” they pressed the “tool” key.14

Finally, Woodruff and Premack are reported to have devised a cuing-free experiment in which chimpanzees indicated by gesture the presence of food in a container to human participants who did not know its location. They would correctly direct “friendly” humans who would then share the food with them, but would mislead “unfriendly” humans who would not share the food—since the animals were then permitted to get the food for themselves.15

Each of the above experimental “successes” is of interest since each appears to be quite free, not from original human influence in the training process, but at least from the Clever Hans effect of unintentional cuing. Moreover, they demonstrate fairly complex symbol-object associative skills, “intentional” communication, and even, in the last case, some form of “deception.” We place quotation marks about the terms, “intentional” and “deception,” because the exact cognitive content of such acts remains to be properly understood.

Yet, despite the above-described notable results of non-cued experiments as well as claims of hundreds of “words” being learned and of “sentences” and even “dialogue” being articulated by signing apes, careful natural scientific observers remain convinced of essential differences still remaining between ape and human capabilities. To top

The Uniqueness of Human Speech

After extremely careful analysis of all the relevant data and arguments presented by the ape-language studies, Walker finally concludes that man's linguistic capabilities remain unique:

Apes trained to employ artificial systems of symbolic communication ought not, therefore, to be said to have acquired a language, in the sense that people acquire a language. Human language is unique to humans, and although some of the distinctive features of human speech, such as the mimicking of sounds, may be observed in other species, the resemblance between, for instance, the trained gesturing of a chimpanzee and communication via sign- language among the human deaf is in some senses no greater than the resemblance between the speech of a parrot and that of its owner.16

A parrot might, hypothetically, be trained to say, “Polly wants a cracker because Polly is hungry and because Polly knows that a cracker would neutralize the hyperacidity of his stomach acid and thereby reestablish its normal pH.” It might even be trained to say this in order to obtain food when hungry. Yet, no one would seriously contend that the bird in question actually understands concepts such as “neutralize,” “hyperacidity,” and “normal pH.” It is one thing to associate a trained response with a given stimulus, but quite another to grasp intellectually the intrinsic nature of each in all its various elements as well as the nature of the cause-effect relationship entailed.

Walker also concludes that—aside from their evident superiority in terms of the “sheer quantity” of associations learned—the apes' capabilities do not qualitatively exceed those of lower species, e.g., as when a dog responds to the arbitrary sign of a buzzer in order to obtain a piece of meat through the performance of some trained action:

In so far as it can be demonstrated that the apes establish a collection of associations between signs and objects, then the results of their training extend further than any previously observed form of animal learning, but it is not clear that they need a substantially different kind of ability to make these associations from that which may be used by other mammals to respond to smaller sets of signals.17

He also notes the essential dependence of the animals upon human influence in order to assure their performance:

Even when a computer-controlled keyboard is used, so that tests can be made in the absence of a human presence, social interactions between human trainers and the animal being trained are apparently necessary if the animal is to show any interest in using the keyboard (Rumbaugh, 1977).18

Finally, Walker eloquently describes the radical wall of separation which distinguishes man from all the lower primates—pointing in particular to man's unique possession of language in its proper meaning:

Of all the discontinuities between man and animals that could be quoted, including the exclusively human faculties for abstraction, reason, morality, culture and technology, and the division of labour . . . the evergreen candidate for the fundamental discontinuity, which might qualify all others, is language. . . . In a state of nature we expect humans to talk, and by comparison, the most unrelenting efforts to induce our closest living relatives to reveal hidden linguistic potential have left the discontinuity of speech bloodied, but unbowed.19

With respect to the linguistic facility of apes in comparison to man, Walker maintains that chimpanzees form “mental” associations—but that their abilities pale against those displayed by people:

It seems necessary to accept that under the conditions described, chimpanzees form mental associations between perceptual schemata for manual gestures and others for object categories. This is not to say, in Romanes's phrase, that they can mean propositions, in forms such as “all chimpanzees like bananas....” [S]ince it has not been convincingly demonstrated that one chimpanzee gesture modifies another, or that there is any approximation to syntax and grammar in the comprehension or expression of artificial gestures, the similarity between the use of individual signs by apes, and the use of words by people, is definitely limited.20

Despite Walker's willingness here to defend the uniqueness of man, we note that he yet shares the tendency of most natural scientists to describe lower primates' associative imaginative acts while employing philosophically misapplied terms such as “mental,” “understand,” and “think.” In proper philosophical usage, such terms are strictly predicable of human intellectual activities. Their application to brute animals in this context serves only to confuse the intellectual with the sentient order.

In an observation which strikes at the very heart of all ape language experiments, Hediger supports the claim by biophilosopher Bernard Rensch who noted in 1973 that nothing like human language has ever been found among any of the apes in the state of nature. Hediger comments:

In other words, with all animals with which we try to enter into conversation we do not deal with primary animals but with anthropogenous animals, so-to-speak with artifacts, and we do not know how much of their behaviour may still be labelled as animal behaviour and how much, through the catalytic effect of man, has been manipulated into the animal. This is just what we would like to know. Within this lie the alpha and omega of practically all such animal experiments since Clever Hans.21

This amounts to a recognition that all ape-language studies presuppose the invention of true language by man. This peculiarly human invention is then imposed by man upon the apes. The day on which apes create their own linguistic system is still the dream of science fiction.

As is well known to the philosophical science of psychology, human language consists of a deliberately invented system of arbitrary or conventional signs.22 Thus the English word “red” could just as well have stood for the natural colour green—except for the convention or agreement by all that it should represent just what it does. The alternative to such arbitrary signs consists of what are termed natural signs, which, as the name implies, flow from the very nature of something. Thus smoke is a natural sign of fire, a beaver slapping its tail on water is a natural sign of danger, and the various calls of birds are signs of specific natural meanings—which cannot be arbitrarily interchanged or invented. The hiss of a cat is never equivalent to its purr.

From all this, it is clear that in teaching apes to “talk” man is simply imposing upon them his own system of arbitrary or conventional signs. The signs belong to man, not to the apes. The apes use them only because we train them to do so. We thus turn the apes, as Hediger says, into “artifacts” of our own creation.

Hediger emphasizes the importance of not underestimating the impact of human training upon lower species:

This amazing act of training causes one to ponder the manifold efforts of several researchers to enter into language contact, into a dialogue with apes....

In each case the chimpanzees were demonstrated the desired actions with the hope that they would react in a certain way. . . . with Washoe, Sarah, Lana, and so forth, it is the production of certain signs in which we would like to see a language. But how can we prove that such answers are to be understood as elements of a language, and that they are not only reactions to certain orders and expression, in other words simply performances of training?23

One perhaps should ponder here that it is not brute animals alone which can react to training in a way which bespeaks performance but lack of understanding. Have we not all, at one time or another, heard a small child speak a sentence—even with perfect syntax and grammar—whose meaning obviously utterly eludes him? Or, at least, we hope it eludes him! And, if such can occur in children through training and imitation, one can well understand Hediger's hesitancy to attribute intellectual understanding to a brute animal when such acts could well be explained by simple performance training.

Moreover, Hediger makes a suggestion which reveals the extreme difficulty entailed in assuring that apes actually do understand the meanings of the “words” they gesture under present methods:

I do not doubt that Washoe and other chimps have learned a number of signs in the sense of ASL. But it seems to me that a better clarification could be reached mainly through the introduction of the orders “repeat” and “hold it.” By this the chimpanzee could show that he really understands the single elements and does not execute fast, sweeping movements into which one possibly could read such elements.24

Since such “stop action” techniques have never even been attempted in present ASL trained apes, it would seem that demonstration of true intellectual understanding of hand signs in them is virtually impossible. By contrast, humans frequently do explicate their precise meanings to each other—even to the point of writing scholarly papers immersed in linguistic analysis. To top

The Inferiority of Apes

In contrast with the rather elevated dialogue about apes' supposed “mental” abilities, Hediger makes a fundamental observation designed to cut the Gordian knot of much of the controversy. Analogous to the old retort, “If you are so smart, why aren't you rich?,” Hediger's rather fatally apropos version runs essentially thus: “If apes are so intelligent, why can't they learn to clean their own cages?”

If apes really dispose of the great intelligence and the highly developed communication ability that one has attributed to them lately—why in no case in the zoos of the world, where thousands of apes live and reproduce, has it been possible to get one to clean his own cage and to prepare his own food?25

In a follow-up comment made, presumably, without any personal prejudice against apes, Hediger writes, “Apes have no notion of work. We might perhaps teach an ape a sign for work but he will never grasp the human conception of work.”26

Finally, Hediger notes that “the animal has no access to the future. It lives entirely in the present time.”27 And again, Hediger insists, “To my knowledge, up to now, no animal, not even an ape, has ever been able to talk about a past or a future event.”28

If argument from authority has any force at all, it should be noted here that Heini Hediger is described by the Sebeoks as the “world's leading authority on human-animal communication... (and) ...former director of the Zurich zoo....”29

Moreover, the conclusions by Walker cited above warrant special attention because his book, Animal Thought, represents an outstanding synthesis of available data on animal “mental” processes and includes an extensive review of the recently conducted ape-language studies.30

In addition to the specific distinctions between ape and man noted above, the philosopher notices a pattern of evidence which tends to confirm his own conclusions. For it is clear that the apes studied are, in all well-documented activities, exclusively focused upon the immediate, particular objects of their sense consciousness. They seek concrete sensible rewards readily available in the present. Such documented observations are entirely consistent with the purely sentient character of the matter-dependent mode of existence specific to animals.

Apes have no proper concept of time in terms of knowing the past as past or the future as future. Nor do they offer simply descriptive comment or pose questions about the contents of the passing world—not even as a small child does when he asks his father why he shaves or tells his mother she is a good cook even though his stomach is now full.

Time and again it is evident that the most pressing obsession of any ape is the immediate acquisition of a banana (or its equivalent). It has little concern for the sorts of speculative inquiry about that same object which would concern a botanist.

In fact, the whole experiential world of apes is so limited that researchers are severely restricted in terms of their selection of motivational tools capable of use in engaging them to perform or dialogue. Hediger laments:

Therefore there remain the essential daily needs, above all metabolism, food and drink, social and sexual contact, rest and activity, play and comfort, conditions of environment in connection with the sensations of pleasure and dislike, some objects, and possibly a few more things. This is indeed rather modest.31

Small wonder the apes will neither philosophize nor clean their cages!

We have seen above that much of ape-communicative skills can be explained in terms of simple imitation or unintentional cuing. Even in the carefully controlled experiments designed to lessen or eliminate all cuing, the factor of human influence in the extensive training needed to get apes to initiate and continue their performance simply cannot be eliminated.

Yet, there seems to remain a legitimate need for further explanation of the impressive ape-communicative skills manifested as the product of the experiments done by Savage-Rumbaugh and others. Granted, exhaustive training may explain why these chimpanzees and gorillas act in fashions never seen in the state of nature. Yet, this does not fully avoid the need to explain the remarkable character of the behaviour produced by this admittedly artificial state into which the animals have been thrust by human imposition.

In the first place, it must be noted that there is no undisputed evidence of ape-language skills which exceed the domain of the association of sensible images. Even the categorization of things like tools and actions does not exceed the sensible abilities of lower species, e.g., the ability of a bird to recognize selectively the objects which are suitable for nest building. Nor does even the ability to “label labels” exceed, in principle, the province of the association of internal images. To top

Intellective Activity

It should be observed here that the nature of intellectual knowledge does not consist merely in the ability to recognize common sensible characteristics or sensible phenomena which are associated with a given type of object or action. Such sentient recognition is evident in all species of animals whenever they respond in consistent fashion to like stimuli, as we see in the case of the wolf sensing any and all sheep as the object of his appetite.

On the contrary, the intellect penetrates beyond the sensible appearances of things to their essential nature. Even at the level of its first act (that is, simple apprehension or abstraction), the intellect “reads within” the sensible qualities of an entity—thereby grasping intelligible aspects which it raises to the level of the universal concept. Thus, while we can imagine the sensible qualities of an individual triangle, we cannot imagine the universal essence of triangularity—since a three-sided plane figure can be expressed in infinitely varied shapes and sizes. Yet, the concept of triangularity is a proper object of intellectual understanding. Thus, the essence of conceiving the universal consists, not merely in an association of similar sensible forms, but in the formation of a concept abstracted from the individuating, singularizing influence of matter and freed from all the sensible qualities which can exist only in an individual, concrete object or action.

So too, the correct identification of, communication about, and employment of an appropriate tool by a chimpanzee (in order to obtain food) is no assurance of true intellectual understanding. Indeed, a spider which weaves its web to catch insects is repeatedly creating the same type of tool designed exquisitely to catch the same type of victim. Yet, does anyone believe that this instinctive behaviour bespeaks true intellectual understanding of the means-end relation on the part of the spider? Hardly! The evident lack of intelligence in the spider is manifest the moment it is asked to perform any feat or task outside its fixed instinctive patterns.

Whether “programmed” by instinct, as in the case of the spider, or by man, as in the case of the chimpanzee, each animal is simply playing out its proper role in accord with pre-programmed habits based upon recognition or association of sensibly similar conditions. Certainly, no ape or any other brute animal understands the means as means, the end as end, and the relation of means to end as such. The sense is ordered to the particular; only intellect understands the universal.

One may ask, “How do we know that the ape does not understand the intrinsic nature of the objects or ”labels“ he has been trained to manipulate?” The answer is that, just like the spider which cannot perform outside its “programmed” instincts, so too, the ape—while appearing to act quite “intelligently” within the ambit of its meticulous training, yet exhibits neither the originality nor creative progress which man manifests when he invents at will his own languages and builds great civilizations and, yes, keeps his own “cages” clean!

Therefore, while it is clear that certain apes have been trained to associate impressive numbers of signs with objects, it is also clear that the mere association of images with signs and objects, or even of images with other images, does not constitute evidence of intellectual understanding of the intrinsic nature of anything. And it is precisely such acts of understanding which remain the exclusive domain of the human species.

Yet, the field of contest of ape-language studies is centred not only upon the first act of the intellect discussed above, but also upon the second and third acts of the intellect, i.e., upon judgment and reasoning. Thus Chevalier-Skolnikoff insists that the chimpanzee, Washoe, and the gorilla, Koko, exhibit true grammatical competence as, for example:

“breakfast eat some cookie eat,” signed by Koko at 5 years 6 months and “please tickle more, come Roger tickle,” “you me go peek-a-boo,” and “you me go out hurry,” signed by Washoe at about 3 years 9 months. Besides providing new information, the structures of these phrases (like those of the novel compound names) imply that they are intentionally planned sequences.32

It is in the expression of such “intentionally planned sequences” that Koko is reported to have argued with and corrected others, e.g., when Koko pointed to squash on a plate and her teacher signed “potato.” Koko is reported to have signed “Wrong, squash.”33

Even if one is disposed to accept the intrinsically anecdotal character of all such data, we must remember the inherent danger of anthropomorphic inferences warned against by Walker, the Sebeoks, and others. As Walker concludes, because of the necessary interaction with a human companion during such communication, “there is virtually no evidence of this kind which is not vulnerable to the charge that the human contact determined the sequence of combinations observed.”34

And while it is not evident precisely how the animal was trained to sign “wrong” or otherwise indicate a negative, such a sign when associated with a correct response (e.g., “squash”) need not reflect a genuinely intellectual judgment. The correct response itself is simply proper categorization which is the product of training. Its association with a negative word-sign like “wrong” or “no” may simply be a sign which is trained to be elicited whenever the interlocutor's words or signs do not fit the situation. The presumption of intellectual reflection and negative judgments in such cases constitute rank anthropomorphism in the absence of other specifically human characteristics, e.g., there appears to be no data whatever recording a “correction” or “argument” entailing a progressive process of reasoning. Rather, two signs, such as “No, gorilla” or “Wrong, squash” constitute the entire “argument.” Compare such simple “denials” to the lengthy syllogistic arguments—often of many steps—offered in human debate. The apes, at best, appear to offer us merely small collections of associated simple signs—usually united only by the desire to attain an immediate sensible reward.

As noted earlier, apes have been reported to sign to other apes.35 They have even been reported to sign to themselves when alone.36 Such behaviour, though striking, simply reflects the force of habit. Once the proper associations of images to hand signs have been well established, the tendency to respond in similar fashion in similar contexts—whether in the presence of man or another ape or even in solitude—is hardly remarkable.

© Copyright 2017 Dennis Bonnette, PhD