Science AMA Series: "I’m Adriano Lameira, post-doc research fellow at the Durham University, UK. On the 8th of August, I will be here to chat about our recent study with Rocky, who has broken through the glass ceiling of the traditional theory of speech evolution. AMA!

Abstract

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I've heard claims that the clicking sounds of the pygmies are very close to that what scientist believe was the first language that evolved. Is this true? Why or why not?

Absjalon

Hi Absjalon,

this question has also intrigued me some time! We have reported a captive orangutan that can produce this sort of clicks (Tilda, published in Plos One) - although there are several different types in South African languages. Finding one of these sounds in one of our closest relatives seems to suggest that the capacity to produce them goes far back in our lineage, certainly increasing the chances that they could have been part of the first language. Sounds do not fossilize and reconstruction of the sound of extinct languages is a very new field, relying largely on computer algorithms to reconstruct the sounds of a certain word in an old language by fusing the sounds of the same word in two extant sister languages. So it remains currently largely speculative. Please have a look at this article, this is the one, to my knowledge, making the most data-driven claim that clicks may have been a component of the "Mother tongue" (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(03)00130-1)


Do you believe that great apes have or had the ability to to communicate complex thought with us. I know of some gorillas that can communicate with humans through sign language, but I was wondering if there other methods and are they able to express self awareness. Thank you!

TheDarkNinja15

Hi TheDarkNinja15,

it is very hard to separate indeed vocal aptitude from the underpinning cognitive machinery and for us to think about one of these aspects of human behavior without thinking of the other. It is good the keep in the back of our minds that the first civilizations (and this is reported in some of the oldest manuscripts available to us which were philosophical essays), the distinction between human and nonhuman was based on the capacity to speak. For instance, in animal fables, talking animal automatically endow them human characteristics, such as bipedalism and clothing.

Due to the ongoing destruction of great ape habitat due to palm oil, is it reasonable to expect that the vocal richness that we observe today in the wild is lower than that in former times, when larger and more diverse great ape populations could collect, transmit, and maintain more learned behaviors. Gestural languages have been indeed thought successfully across all great ape species in captivity, which give us a remarkable window into their cognition. The mirror test, for instance, also demonstrates that great apes are self-aware in ways that other primates are not (but a new study was able to train macaques to recognize themselves in the mirror).

May I suggest to you the new book of Frans de Waal, "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are". He argues for different types of intelligence, and I think this is one of the most promising frameworks available to us right now on how to understand how other "sentient" beings think.


How would you learn language of lets say some stranded civilization if they didnt know your language, and you didnt know theirs? It would be immensly difficult wouldnt it? So how come the neighbouring tribes knew how to speaker to each other when they met?

HazardSK

Hi HazardSK,

interesting question! This was indeed the challenge faced by the linguists (often priests) that boarded the Portuguese and Spanish ships across the Atlantic when searching for the New World. In these contexts, some of the tools available relied on pantomime and trying to learn basic vocabulary for common objects or events in the environment. Say, you would point to yourself and say "HazardSK" and then you would point to your inter-communicator, expecting he/she would have understood that you asked their name (basically, what we did with Rocky, the orangutan in our study!). Or you would point to a coconut, say "coconut" and expect your new friend to say coconut in it's on mother tongue.

Regarding neighboring tribes, the situation is rather different in the sense that, if the tribes are geographic neighbours that means they share a common ancestor sometime in the (recent) past, and thus, so do their spoken languages. The exact sounds of the languages may be more or less different (an example being the languages of Papua New Guinea) but these languages will share general grammatical rules (say name-verb-object, or name-object-verb) which should make learning each others language more swiftly, and one would expect some words to have remained largely unchained, words like "you", or "one" and "two".


What is the prevailing model of how speech developed in humans? Is this paralleled by what is seen in chimps or other animals? Is our language "special" or simply thousands of years more advanced in its development?

doppelwurzel

Hi Doppelwurzel,

there are two major lines of thought in the discipline. One - Noam Chomsky's legacy - argues that there is no possible parallel between human spoken language and the vocal system of other great apes. This "ideology" simply throughs Darwin's theory of natural selection away with the bath water. I think this is delusional. It is also interesting to notice that none of these scholars, making the most adamant claims about what great apes can and cannot do, actually never studied great apes. It's like taking the word of a gardener as a qualified opinion about how to build the electronics of a rocket.

The second "school" assumes that the confluence of several factors put the evolution of the vocal system on the human lineage on fast forward. Now the task at hand is to pull up our sleeves and search, in the wild and captivity, to identify these factors.


To what extent do you think linguistic syntax is analogous to and derived from pre-existing cognitive structures? I.e that syntax is an elaboration of some more ancestral trait?

Reggaepocalypse

Hi Reggaeapocalypse,

Syntax makes use of a toolbox of combinatorial rules, some of which we can find in animals, primates and non-primates. Knowing that nature works along the axes of least effort and based on parsimony, I think the most valid null hypotheses to start researching this field is to assume there is continuity. Although syntax TODAY may exhibit a level of sophistication well above anything in the natural world, this doesn't exclude per se that it did not originally derived from much more rudimentary systems. If not, then where did it derive from? Please check the work by Simon Townsend, namely some his recent work and team published in PLOS Biology and Proceedings B, I am sure you will find his work enlightening regarding your questions.


Given that Jane Goodall's discovery of chimpanzees using simple tools changed the 'line' between man and ape. From a scientific and research perspective, how does this make us rethink the 'line' between humans and great apes?

Edit (ungrateful food I am): Thank you for your time.

Weekday_Warrior

Hi Weekday_Warrior,

my hope is that indeed scientists stop thinking in the form of division lines and instead of a continuum between us and great apes when it comes to spoken language evolution. Tools, and then culture, have made us "redefine" in the past what it means to be human. Human language remains the last stronghold for human uniqueness. This has, however, resulted in rather odd ideas in mainstream science forwarding that language could have resulted from an "hopeful-monster" mutation, which is a way is simply a reformulation of a mystical origin for spoken language. The chances of an orangutan hitting its head against a tree trunk and start talking are virtually the same. In this way, it perplexes me that the eyes of many scholars do not glitter when offered this evolutionary puzzle - language is the underlining reason for nearly everything distinctive that our species does and it only evolved once in nearly 3.5 billion years of life on Earth!


You study anthropology, but many of these great ape language papers have later been scrutinized by linguists as bad linguistics.

Have you collaborated with linguists to prevent such mistakes this time?

divinesleeper

Hi divinesleeper,

yes, we try to work on an interdisciplinary basis with linguists as much as possible. There has been a very recent mega-project led by linguists focusing on call combinations used by monkeys. The conclusions are that monkey combination rules show equivalent properties to grammatic rules in humans. Please see here (DOI: 10.1515/tl-2016-0001).


He seems to just be mimicking certain sounds, which I guess is kind of something I suppose, but does he attach any meaning to those different sounds? Like, could he eventually learn to associate a certain sound with a grape, vs a certain sound for a peanut. Parrots can do that, shouldn't apes be able to?

gaxnar

Hi Gaxnar,

this is a very logical question and I'm sure lots of folks share it with you! The sound that Rocky controlled ("wookies") is equivalent to a vowel in human spoken language. From a comparative point of view, one wouldn't then expect any particular meaning to be attached to this sound (much as an isolated "e" has no meaning in English). Rocky produced low and high wookies in the same context and so, like in humans, a change in the frequency (Hz)/tone of the vocalization did not affect the vocalizations' potential meaning. For instance, we also do not attach different meanings to "grapes" whether said by the low voice of a big man or the high voice of a woman.

In this sense animal calls are said to be holistic: one particle carries the whole meaning, whereas us, humans, put different particles together to attribute a meaning, for example, "m" + "e" = "me". In this way, it is very hard to determine what animal calls mean. Does a monkey alarm call mean, "look guys, an eagle, run for the bushes!" or simply "run low!" or "eagle"? It has been recently argued that the meaning of these calls is very broad, likely to transmit more the notion of general actions like "run low", instead of some specific object or entity, like "eagle". On the other hand, things can get rather sophisticated in some monkeys species, with individuals, for instance, tagging their calls with suffixes and prefixes to transmit if the danger is close by or at a distance!

Now that we are starting to finally appreciate and document the true vocal potential of great apes, will be able to see in what ways they resemble humans and other vocal learners, such as parrots. Clearly, we do not find captive great apes chatting away the same way that many parrots do. This evidence really shows us that different articulatory and vocal systems can produce a large range of similar sounds. But, because great apes share the same vocal anatomy and neurological architecture with our species, as well as a parallel socio-ecology, to know what they can't do is ultimately as important as to know what they can't in the endeavor of knowing how evolution pieced together human speech.


Through all your work with orangutans, how do you feel about their IUCN status? What, in your opinion, can the average person do to help orangutan populations grow again?

Ktheduchess

Hi Ktheduchess,

I am truly glad you have brought up directly this issue today!

Please check the ingredients of your shoppings and avoid buying anything with palm oil - including organic palm oil. Palm oil is destructive, thus, cheap. If there is palm oil in your product - chips, cookies, soap, perfume, detergent - them the producer of that product is probably trying to sell you cat for rabbit. Buy local, buy organic, buy directly from trusted producers or grow and make your own products (nearly always more affordable and healthier for you!).

Considering that in average a person buys 4 products a day, this is everyone's opportunity to "vote" 4 times a day about our non-consent for forest destruction for palm oil and boycott large corporation in their own game.


I saw several posts about this a few weeks ago including a video of one if the enrichment facilities. In the video a woman was making noises and every time the orangutan made a similar noise it was rewarded. What about this research shows that orangutans are doing more than mimicry?

TempusCavus

Hi TempusCavus,

a reward system is simply designed to keep the great ape individual interested, motivated, and focused on the task. Great apes work very well for food. This method of keeping them engaged with the task at hand should be thought independently of the task itself.

I should note, however, that we did not use this reward system to train Rocky. All our tests with Rocky were unknown to him before the actual start of the experiments. We wanted to make sure that he was indeed following our "instructions" and that he had not developed automated responses (Pavlovian-like) to our different requests (in this case, different model calls).


Hi Dr. Lameira,

How close are parrots like the African Gray in communication levels comparison to Rocky and his ilk?

What are your opinions on the abilities of parrots and how have they contributed to these type studies?

Thanks for doing this AMA.

westmkim

Hi westmkim,

parrots are remarkable! I have touched down slightly on this in a previous reply today, but please allow me to forward you to the super-sumo of parrot vocal behavior - Irene Pepperberg. If you search Youtube or Google Scholar for this topic you will definitely get to know Irene's work. She has written an amazing popular science book and if you are interested in own parrot behavior parallels that of our species, I am sure you will enjoy your reading!


What are some of the struggles you face with trying to break this "language barrier"

Vrelian

Hi Vrelian,

I confess that there is quite a bit of resistance (along some of my other replies today) but like in any process of advancement, the younger generations are thinking out- and inside the box, formulating new hypotheses and circumventing barriers that other before thought were too high or wide to go around. A lot of this resistance comes during the submission process of a research paper. Currently, there is only one currency in science and it is the publication of a high impact paper. However, if the gatekeeper doesn't let your paper go to review, the implications that a study could potentially bring to a certain field becomes much more limited. Although a high impact paper could probably secure better future job or funding, I believe sound research will always be appreciated by the right people in your field.


So I've read some reports on the research with Rocky and watched some videos, and I don't think it's always explained very well.

From my understanding, it's not that he's learned to make sounds mimicking speech (like a talking bird), but rather that he can mimic pitch and volume while interacting with (but not communicating with) a human, in order to get a treat.

But why is that any more interesting? In the past I'd read that while great apes do communicate via vocalization, there was a big question mark over whether they had "control" or whether it was a reflex. The idea is that Rocky us an insight into how more subtle and conscious vocalizations could give rise to something like language?

Odds-Bodkins

Hi Odds-Bodkins,

yes, your thinking line is correct! And yes, what news outlets report needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, and it is often a good exercise to verify directly the original paper written by the researchers to spare some confusion!

The golden evidence here is indeed that he voluntarily controlled his vocal folds to produce a vowel-like vocalization that he had previously learned. This is basically the capacity that you and I needed to learn the vowels of our mother tongues when we were young children!


Did an Ape ever ask a question? I've heard that they don't, and that this implies they don't have a theory of mind. Would you care to comment?

Absjalon

Hi Absjalon,

great apes request food through gestures and calls. Is a request a question? :) Please look at the work of the ultra-prolific of Josep Call, he has produced a lot on the topic of theory of mind!


Great work; I was wondering, do apes have vocal chords that theoretically could speak or utter closely simple single syllable words. No pun intended but ape common human words ?

BillWOcala

Hi BillWOcala,

thank you! Yes, great ape vocal cords are presumed to be anatomically similar to our own. Overall, it has been argued that their vocal tract would, in fact, allow the production of a large part of similar sounds as those that we use in speech.

We have shown in previous studies that great ape can produce, control, and learn consonant-like calls, and know we know that they can do the same for vowel-like calls. A very logical step in future research would be, as you suggest, to teach them to put together one particle of each type and generate a syllable- or word-like utterance. Orangutans do this very often in the wild in contexts of alarm. This indicates that these two types of calls in great apes offer promising precursors to human consonants and vowels. I expect that it is a matter of time until researchers manage to motivate ethically a great ape to learn to produce syllables or simply words.


Would all languages have had a common ancestor in a similar way to species in the theory of evolution? Are there any animals that have a language that isnt audible like sign language?

eratosensei

Hi eratosensei,

yes, there is a remarkable parallel on how species and languages diversify. Hotspot regions for species (i.e. with very high number of different species) are also hotspots for human languages! Darwin noted this parallel and this has been showed empirically in recent years (see here, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060186).

Yes, many species communicate through sonar, ultra- and infrasound, all of which humans cannot hear!


In the Nature paper you linked (which I have shamefully only skimmed, but looks excellent), you mention '...new databases on the natural vocal behaviour of great apes...'

How complete is our understanding of that part of ape communication which is vocal? Is there any meaningful comparison we can make between the complexity of ape 'natural language' and any human one? Can they use language deceitfully, for example?

In terms of your own research, the case you make for understanding the evolution of language is compelling. Beyond that, are their any implications for, say, building a kind of natural language interface for machines?

notjustaprettybeard

Hi notjustaprettybeard,

very relevant questions, thank you!

Our work in the wild in ongoing and we believe now that the size of the orangutan call repertoire surpasses more than 50 different calls, which would put them ahead of any other primate, with the exception of our species (all the world's languages comprise circa 600 different consonant and vowel sounds). The call repertoire of African apes is slightly different, in that they tend to rely much more on fine variations of the same calls that are often times only perceptible to the apes themselves or very experienced researchers. Recently, a colleague of mine played two different call variants at a conference, which he and his team coined with different names. He showed me that, statistically, the acoustics of each call were significantly different but I simply could not hear the difference!

Yes, we have two published papers of deceptive call use in orangutans, please see here (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1027) and here (doi: 10.1242/jeb.110577). We have recently submitted new data on this, and we are hoping it will be published soon! Stay tuned!

Regarding machines and computer languages, I think that if we crack the puzzle of language evolution, know its parts, how and when they are put together, and their respective synergies, we probably would be much better off in creating new and advanced computer languages or communication systems!


Hello Professor Lameira!

I was wondering how big your team is and if any undergrad students participate in the research. Thank you!

lana_white

Hi lana_white,

we are always searching for motivated young minds to work with us in captivity and in the wild. If you think this could be something for you, please contact me directly (adriano.lameira@durham.ac.uk)!


Is there any specific, burning question that you have had regarding speech evolution that you hope may be answered by studying Rocky? And thank you for doing this AMA!

rainslaughter

Hi rainslaugher,

yes, great question! We don't know the inception of wookies that Rocky learned before we knew him. It is still a remote possibility that we could have acquired it through invention, other than learning it from humans (although a previous study of our with Tilda is more difficult to explain without invoking social learning directly from humans). We plan to design a new type of vocalization that is completely "alien" to what orangutan are known to do, teach him that and demonstrate that we directly seeded this vocalization in him!


In regards to the primate's vocalization of the human tongue, do you believe primates possess the physical structures needed to produce human speech? Or are forms of non-verbal communication (via the integration of tools) needed to compensate the primate's lack of speech production?

Rslabs

Hi Rslabs,

I'm not too sure if I understand your question correctly. Anatomically, in terms of the vocal tract, there is nothing qualitatively different between us and great apes that unables them to produce sounds acoustically similar to human consonants and vowels.

We have reported the use of tools simultaneous with call production in wild orangutans. To our knowledge, this is something only found in this genus within the primate clade and we have speculated how such tool integration could have contributed to higher vocal control in human ancestors. Please see here (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1027) and here (doi:10.1007/s11692-011-9151-6).


If vocalizations similar to humans are possible, why can't we just teach a baby Orangutan speech like we would with a human baby?

Seventytvvo

Hi Seentytvvo,

simply put this is indeed the golden question!

Probably part of the answer involves motivation and sensitivity to the right cues in the process of learning a new behavior. For instance, great apes (and indeed animals is general) are much more tuned with "body language" and posture. Maybe great apes simply don't care or perceive as relevant all that we do with our mouths when we speak to them. As humans, we are also more likely to imitate some individuals in our communities and networks than others. Probably, to teach an orangutan baby to babble as a human baby, we would have to first teach her mother to talk (by understanding even before what motivates her to possibly do so) because a baby orangutan will probably do what her mom does, not some funny looking ape with clothes behaving in clearly odd ways! :)


What's the most difficult concept animals have ever communicated? Do animals speak as we do?

AMA_firefighter

Hi AMA_firefighter,

Good question!

Our team has reported the use of deception in orangutan call use in the wild (here, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1027 and here, doi: 10.1242/jeb.110577). Cognitively this is rather sophisticated!

I don't think that animals speak. Spoken language is something that us, humans, do and our main system of communication. This is not to say that animals do not use complex signals to communicate. For instance, it is hard for us to imagine, feel, or understand how sonar communication works in bats and whales. The means of communication of any particular species is the result of its context in its environment and its senses. Because great ape senses, ecology, and sociality exhibit very close affinities with our own, I believe we can study great apes to understand how come we actually became the "talking ape" that we are today.


If the language barrier was broken, is it feasible to communicate with animals one day or would there be too little common ground?

eratosensei

Hi eratosensei,

it was once argued that, if a lion could talk, we would still not understand him! This is because the means through which lions sense and experience the world, their biological needs and predispositions, are so different from our own that whatever he would say to us would still be, nevertheless, incomprehensible.

I would argue that this would probably be different with great apes. I say this because they are more than 95% genetically identical to us. This means that their biology is very similar to ours. If we could control for the "cultural shock" that a talking great ape would experience, we probably could understand most of what it would tell us!


Has it been considered that humans' nuanced vocal communication is a result of a neurosis that doesn't affect apes? Many humans seek a mental state of 'zen', which from an outsiders perspective, appears similar to an animal's mental state.

TBone_Filthy_McNasty

Hi TBone_Filthy_McNasty,

I have sincerely never heard of these hypotheses, but I am not surprised. Speculation abounds in this topic. I agree that in same way animals are in a state of zen, in the sense they mostly live in the "now"! However, from the texts that I have read on zen, any comparison with animals is only superficial since zen is a highly deep and focused intellectual and emotional exercise based on capacities of the mind that we wouldn't normally attribute to animals. But your question is germane! As I have mentioned in an earlier reply today, speech and the human mind and cognition have been thought to be one and the same for the largest portion of human history.


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