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Look who isn’t talking – The Animals!

Posted by Ethan Clow on March 11, 2011

Talking animals have always interested me. Perhaps that’s because my youth was spent watching talking animals of various sorts in cartoons, comics, books, and even video games.

When I was young, I would often wonder why my dog couldn’t talk, or why you never saw rabbits conversing with ducks like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Of course, once I got a bit older I started to realize there were certain physiological issues for dogs and rabbits and ducks that prevented them from speaking.

However, soon science muddied the water with these monkeys that could supposedly talk through American Sign Language.

Was it possible?

Were these really talking animals?

What do we mean by talking? First, let’s decide what we don’t mean. We don’t mean communication. It’s obvious animals can communicate. What we’re specifically trying to discover is if animals can learn to talk to humans and if we can understand each other.

This sort of claim has been made in the past and but it’s not been widely accepted. Perhaps we can try to figure out what is really happening.

We also need to further clarify talking. Many animals can mimic human communication, parrots for example can learn (through repetition and reward) to mimic human sounds. But they aren’t communication with us. You can’t have a conversation with a parrot, it won’t express its own thoughts or emotions.

People often cite such examples of African Grey Parrot, Alex who was the project of animal cognition expert Irene Maxine Pepperberg , she claimed that Alex could indeed understand the words he was saying and even learn new words.

While her research with Alex is indeed fascinating, there are several reasons why I’m skeptical of it. First, it was preformed with one animal working closely with a researcher. This makes the situation very susceptible to the Clever Hans effect.

The Clever Hans effect was named after another animal case in which communication was speculated. A horse named Hans, owned by Wilhelm von Osten, who believed the animal could communicate and do arithmetic. The horse was supposed to have been taught to add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, tell time, keep track of the calendar, differentiate musical tones, and read, spell, and understand German. Hans would answer questions by tapping his hoof. Questions could be asked both orally, and in written form.

Clever Hans

However, after investigation it was discovered that Hans didn’t learn math at all, rather he was responding to the questioner. This was determined after they several controls on Hans tests.

Han and the questioner were isolated from spectators, so no cues could come from them, they also used questioners the horse wasn’t familiar with. They varied whether the horse could see the questioner and they varied whether the questioner knew the answer to the question in advance.

They found that the horse could get the correct answer even if von Osten himself did not ask the questions, ruling out the possibility of fraud. However, the horse got the right answer only when the questioner knew what the answer was, and the horse could see the questioner.

When they examined the behaviour of the questioner in detail, they discovered the questioner’s posture and facial expression changed in ways that were consistent with an increase in tension, which was released when the horse made the final, correct tap. This provided a cue that the horse could use to tell it to stop tapping.

The effect of the animal picking up on clues from the tester came to be known as the Clever Hans effect and the situation with Alex the parrot could be very similar.

There are many examples of animals mimicking human words or phrases like “hello” or “I love you” They often appear on youtube and become fast viral videos but rarely is it anything more than audio pareidolia. Or the animal picking up on cues from their owner.

Consider the example of Tiggy the talking cat. Supposedly it’s saying “hello” seems to be a pretty obvious case of pareidolia.

The strongest case for animals talking seems to be with the signing primates. I found three strong cases in the chimpanzees Washoe and Nim as well as the gorilla Koko.

The case of Washoe.  Allen and Beatrice Gardner of the University of Nevada, who reported that they had conversed with a member of another species. Washoe, a female chimpanzee.

It was suggested that Washoe learned approximately 350 words of ASL.

In 1967, Allen and Beatrix Gardner established a project to teach Washoe ASL at the university of Nevada.  Since all previous attempts to teach chimpanzees to imitate vocal languages had all failed, the Gardners believed that by focusing on the chimps ability to make body gestures their chances for success would improve. Indeed, previous attempts failed because chimps are physically unable to produce the voiced sounds required for spoken language. Utilizing the chimpanzee’s ability to create diverse gestures, which is how they communicate in the wild, they starting a project to teach a chimp American Sign Language. The Gardners raised Washoe as one would raise a child. She frequently wore clothes and sat with them at the dinner table. Washoe had her own 8 x 24 foot trailer complete with living and cooking areas. The trailer had a couch, drawers, a refrigerator, and a bed with sheets and blankets. She had access to clothing, combs, toys, books, and a toothbrush. Much like a human child, she underwent a regular routine with chores, outdoor play, and rides in the family car.

Washoe was raised this way to resemble the raising of a human child, which the Gardners thought would facilitate her understanding of language.

In fact, when Washoe was around the Gardners, they were careful to only communicate in ASL with, rather than using vocal communication, on the assumption that this would create a less confusing learning environment for Washoe. This technique is commonly used when teaching human children how to sign.

After the first couple of years, the Gardners discovered that Washoe could pick up ASL gestures without operant conditioning.

This is a significant statement. Operant conditioning is the use of a behaviour’s antecedent and/or its consequence to influence the occurrence and form of behaviour, i.e modification through positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. As we all know, animals can be trained to do all manner of extraordinary actions. Training is not synonymous with teaching however.

The Gardners believed they were doing more than “training” Washoe, they would sign “Toothbrush” to each other while they brushed their teeth near her. At the time of observation, Washoe showed no signs of having learned the sign, but on a later occasion she reacted to the sight of a toothbrush by spontaneously producing the correct sign, thereby showing that she had learned what a toothbrush was and how to express it with language.

The Gardners believed that rewarding particular signs with food was actually interfering with the intended result of conversational sign language. They changed their strategy so that food and meal times were never juxtaposed with instruction times. Instead, they set up a conversational environment that evoked communication, supposedly without the use of rewards for specific actions.

For researchers to consider that Washoe had learned a sign, she had to use it spontaneously and appropriately for 14 consecutive days.

These signs were further tested using a double-blind vocabulary test, demonstrating

a) “that the subject could communicate information under conditions in which the only source of information available to a human observer was the signing of the chimpanzee;”

b) “that the chimpanzees used the signs to refer to natural language categories – that the sign DOG could refer to any dog, FLOWER to any flower, SHOE to any shoe.

Washoe inspired legions of imitators. By the early 1970s there were about two dozen apes in language training: one even made it onto The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Another example was Koko the Gorilla.  Trained by Francine Patterson, at the time a graduate student at Stanford University.

According to Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson, is able to understand more than 1,000 signs based on American Sign Language, and understand approximately 2,000 words of spoken English. And it should be noted, the degree to which Koko masters these signs has been highly controversial, as has been the degree to which such mastery demonstrates language abilities.

Patterson and other scholars such as Dr. Hashalaba of the Harvard Institute believe that Koko’s use of signs and her actions, which are consistent with her use of signs, indicate she has mastered the use of sign language. Other researchers argue that she does not understand the meaning behind what she is doing and learns to complete the signs simply because the researchers reward her for doing so. (Indicating that her actions are the product of operant conditioning.)

However, as was the case with Washoe, the trainers claimed that no operant conditioning was going on.

Another concern that has been raised about Koko’s ability to express coherent thoughts through the use of signs is that interpretation of the gorilla’s conversation is left to the handler, who may see artefacts of signs as meaningful when in fact they are not.

Herbert Terrace of Columbia University  trained a chimpanzee cheekily named Nim Chimpsky. Terrance was determined to prove that primates could communicate with humans via ASL and set about trying to prove it with Nim.

At first Nim’s progress matched Washoe’s closely. By September 1977 Nim had acquired 125 signs — not too dissimilar from Washoe’s rate of vocabulary acquisition. He also started stringing signs together in little sentences. Terrace and his colleagues collected over 20,000 instances where Nim put words together in potentially grammatical sequences. For example, if Nim wanted more of something he was more likely to say more something (where something could be anything he knew the name of) than to say it backwards (something more). Similarly, when Nim put a verb and a noun together, he was much more likely to put it in the form (eat grape),rather  than the reverse (grape eat). Patterns like this had convinced the Gardners that Washoe understood grammar, but Terrace realized that word order patterns were not enough to prove that an animal understood grammar.

However, because of the many potential problems in syntax and grammar, as well as the language of ASL that occasionally doesn’t match normal English syntax, without knowing Nim’s intention. One simply cannot know whether a particular utterance is grammatical or not just by looking at the words used. One has to see the context.

Terrace and his team had collected videotapes of Nim with his trainers and proceeded to analyze these frame by frame, looking not just at what signs Nim used, but at the exact context — everything that was going on before and after Nim’s utterances. Terrace released his results in November 1979.

His paper was summarized in the New York Times as “Herbert S. Terrace … now asserts that the success of his own and related efforts can be explained as mere prompting on the part of the experimenters and mistakes in reporting the data. ‘Much of the apes’ behaviour is pure drill,’ he said. ‘Language still stands as an important definition of the human species.’”

Basically the researchers noticed a few key elements that made them completely change their minds about primate communication. Nim failed to initiate conversations, he seldom introduced new vocabulary and just imitated what the humans around him said. Nim’s sentences failed to grow in length. Throughout his time in the language project he stuck to using one or two words at a time. And his longer utterances were without any regard for grammatical structure. Nim’s longest recorded “sentence” was give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you. It’s clear to see a meaning implied there but the syntax and grammar just doesn’t hold up.

Other primate language researchers were very upset over Terrance’s opinion and there was a fair bit of criticism flying back and forth. Perhaps very telling however was that after Terrance published his paper, there were very few appearances of scholarly research on primate communication, but quite a bit in popular culture and media.

So, if primates can’t learn language and “talk” in a way that could convince scientists and linguists alike, where does that leave us? The supernatural? Not yet, what about a talking elephant?

Batyr was an Asian elephant Living in a zoo in Kazakhstan and it was claimed he could use a large amount of meaningful human speech. Batyr was widely reported as having a vocabulary of more than 20 phrases. A recording of Batyr saying “Batyr is good”,”Batyr is hungry” and using words such as “drink” and “give” was played on Kazakh state radio in 1980.

Batyr was first alleged to speak just before New Year’s Day in the winter of 1977 when he was eight years old. Zoo employees were the first to notice his “speech”, but he soon delighted zoo-goers at large by appearing to ask his attendants for water and regularly praising or (infrequently) chastising himself. By 1979, his fame as the “Speaking Elephant” had spread in the wake of various mass-media stories about his abilities, although many contained considerable fabrication and wild conjecture. Batyr’s case was also included in several books on animal behaviour, and in the proceedings of several scientific conferences.

It is claimed that Batyr had a vocabulary of about 20 words in Russian and Kazakh languages. He reportedly imitated the sounds of other animals, and to have uttered short phrases including words of human slang. Batyr’s lexicon list was compiled from audiovisual records, scientific researches and statistical data from eyewitnesses who heard the elephant themselves.

These claims have often been attributed to the observer-expectancy effect; meaning the researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to subconsciously influence what the participants of an experiment actually experience. It’s also related to the idea that if a researcher wants to find something, in this case a talking elephant, they hear words when other neutral researchers just hear noise.

Ok, now for the supernatural.

Gef the talking Mongoose.

Another interesting case is Gef the talking Mongoose. Now this is a neat story. I first learned about Gef back when I was in grade school. We used to get these books from our library and they were monster books. In fact, there’s three books that stick out in my mind, all with appropriate names like “Monsters”, “Ghosts” and “UFOs”

In the book on monsters there was a section on a talking mongoose named Gef. Reported to have inhabited a farmhouse known as Cashen’s Gap near the hamlet of Dalby on the Isle of Man.

The story goes that the Irving family, consisting of James, Margaret and 13 year old daughter Voirrey, heard persistent scratching and rustling noises behind their farmhouse’s wooden wall panels. At first they thought it was a rat, but then the unseen creature began making different sounds. At times it spat like a ferret, growled like a dog or gurgled like a baby.

The entity soon revealed an ability to speak and introduced itself as Gef, a mongoose. It claimed to have been born in New Delhi, India, in 1852. This, according to Voirrey, the only person to see him properly, Gef was the size of a small rat with yellowish fur and a large bushy tail. For the record, the Indian mongoose is in reality much larger than a rat and does not have a bushy tail.

Gef the mongoose?

Gef claimed at times to be “an extra extra clever mongoose”, an “Earthbound spirit” and “a ghost in the form of a weasel”. He once said: “I am a freak. I have hands and I have feet, and if you saw me you’d faint, you’d be petrified, mummified, turned into stone or a pillar of salt!”

In the story he was a mischievous creature who played pranks on people, got into trouble and had supernatural powers. Gef remained friendly towards the Irvings, Gef also supposedly bothered the Irvings’ neighbours, spied on them and reported back to the Irvings. James Irving kept diaries about Gef between 1932 and 1935. These diaries, along with reports about the case, are in Harry Price’s archives in the Senate House Library, University of London.

The story of Gef became popular in the tabloid press, and many journalists flocked to the Isle to catch a glimpse of the creature.

The Irvings left their home in 1937. They reportedly had to sell the farm at a loss because it had the reputation of being haunted. In 1946, Leslie Graham, the farmer who had bought their farm, claimed that he had shot and killed Gef. The body displayed by Graham was, however, black and white and much larger than the famous mongoose and Voirrey Irving was certain that it was not Gef. Irving died in 2005. In an interview published late in life, she maintained that Gef was not her creation.

He was the subject of some dubious psychic investigations and tabloid press that probably thought he was a cute story. Joe Nickel wrote about him briefly in an article for Skeptical Inquirer.

So where does this leave us? Based on all the evidence I’ve seen, I have to say, it looks very dubious that animals can talk. Even when we stretch the definition of “talk” to things like ‘put a noun and verb together.’ It’s pretty clear that animals are intelligent, capable of learning and with dedication and hard work, one can train them to do extraordinary things. But, as I said before, training is different from teaching. It’s clear we can communicate and I’m very curious to how far science can take us along the road of animal communication and cognition, but I’m not quite convinced animals will be using a phone any time soon.

One Response to “Look who isn’t talking – The Animals!”

  1. transgenic animals…

    […]Look who isn’t talking – The Animals! « Radio Freethinker[…]…

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