Neither innate nor learned

July 11, 2012

A child begins to speak; to say that it is hungry, or does not want to sleep. Where was the child’s language hiding before it began to speak? Did the child invent it?

Certainly not, experts on language development would insist. A child cannot create language. Language exists before the child starts to speak. All that is happening during language development is that language is being transported to the child.

The big question is: transported from where? There seem to be only two alternatives:

  1. Language is innate. It is prepared in our neural structures. When the child hears its parents speak, these structures are stimulated and soon start supporting the child’s own speech.
  2. Language is learned. It exists in society. Children have social learning skills; through these skills, language is transported from the social environment to the young pupil, soon supporting the child’s own speech.

These are the alternatives, then. Language is either inside or outside the newborn. Language development is either a process of “externalization” or a process of “internalization” of language. There can be no third alternative.

I have written about the ape Kanzi, who was raised by a human mother. I’ve written about him both on The Ethics Blog and in the book, Kanzi’s Primal Language. This bonobo and his half-sister Panbanisha developed language in a manner that does not clearly correspond to any of these two alternatives.

Since it is hardly credible that human language is innate in apes, ape language researchers typically try to teach apes language. These attempts fail.

Kanzi’s human mother, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, avoided teaching Kanzi. Instead, she simply spoke to him, as parents do, in a shared Pan/Homo culture. As a result of this humanlike cultural rearing, he developed language as nativists believe only human children do: spontaneously, without the parent having to play the social role of a teacher.

The humble purpose of this blog post is to introduce the idea we have to think more carefully about human changeability than we have done so far. We tend to think that human changes are either lying dormant in our nature or are being taught to us by the society.

Kanzi entices us to think differently.

Spontaneous language development in a nonhuman suggests that being reared in culture is more than simply a matter of internalizing social norms. Being reared in culture means participating in the culture: a more creative and masterful role than that of a mere pupil.

I believe we are caught in an adult/child dichotomy. The creative role of the child becomes invisible because the dichotomy categorically portrays her as a novice, as a pupil, as a learner… as a vacuous not-yet-adult-human.

Perhaps, if we manage to liberate us from this dichotomy, we can see the possibility that language – together with much else in human life – is neither innate nor learned.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Trapped in our humanity?

January 13, 2012

Being human, can I think nonhuman thoughts? Can the world I perceive be anything but a human world?

These philosophical questions arise when I read Cora Diamond’s and Bernard Williams’ humanistic portrayals of our relations to animals.

A certain form of “human self-centeredness” is often deemed unavoidable in philosophy. If I talk about a dog as being nervous, for example, I use language. But since this language is my language, and I am human, the dog’s “nervousness” would seem to have its ultimate reference point in my humanity.

When I try these thoughts, they make it look as if we, in some almost occult sense, were trapped in our humanity. The more we reach out toward other bodily beings, the more entrenched we become in our own spirituality. Language may open up an entire world for us. But since language is human, it makes us a solipsistic being that cannot but experience a fundamentally human world.

Believing in an “ineliminable white or male understanding of the world” would be prejudiced, Williams writes. But our humanity cannot, of course, be eliminated as if it were an old prejudice. Therefore: “A concern for nonhuman animals is indeed a proper part of human life, but we can acquire it, cultivate it, and teach it only in terms of our understanding of ourselves.”

Similar thoughts appear in Diamond’s notion that the kind of moral response to animals that can motivate vegetarianism (such as her own) is an “extension to animals of modes of thinking characteristic of our responses to human beings.”

Perhaps I misunderstand them. But the idea seems to be that we become human primarily with other humans, and only thereafter relate to a “nonhuman” world on the basis of the more primordial human one. Humanism, in such philosophical form, could be called: the idea of “humanistic immanence.”

What is valuable in the idea of humanistic immanence is what it has in common with all good philosophy: the self-critical occupation with our own thinking. What I find more questionable is what appears to be an unfounded assumption: that we become human primarily with other humans (a purification of what is human).

One does not have to be a “post-humanist” to make the following observation:

  • “… in the lives of many people animals occupy a place which is, in certain respects, as central as that occupied by other human beings. In particular, certain animals have a quite fundamental place in the lives of many young children; and a child’s use of the words ‘pain’, ‘fear’ and so on may be acquired as immediately in connection with the pet cat as in connection with human beings.” (David Cockburn)

Consider, in the light of this observation, Diamond’s important idea that, “we learn what a human being is in – among other ways – sitting at a table where WE eat THEM.” Take this notion of human becoming to ape language research, where apes and humans meet daily over food and have conversations that may concern such matters as what to eat, who eats what, and who eats with whom.

What happens when humans share food with apes, sitting down on the ground rather than around a dinner table? What happens to our “humanity” and to their “animality”? What happens to us as men and women when apes communicate attitudes to how humans of different sex and age should behave? What happens to our moral understanding when apes view some visitors as bad and urge their human friends to bite them?

My (human) notion of nervousness may in part have developed through interaction with our sensitive Great Dane when I was a child. What I learned through these interactions may only thereafter have been extended to human nervousness.

I am human and so is my language. But the manner in which I became human (and acquired language) transcends, I want to say, the purified human sphere of “humanistic immanence.”

My ineliminable humanity already is more than human. What are the consequences for philosophy?

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking


Have you cited a captive ape?

November 4, 2011

If you are writing on animal welfare, you may one day cite Savage-Rumbaugh, Wamba, Wamba and Wamba (2007). If you do, you will have cited one human and three captive bonobos.

I cited them last month, presenting a paper at the symposium, “Zoo-ethnographies,” arranged by the Centre for Gender Research in Uppsala. Citing them felt quite natural to me, since I’ve met the authors several times. Although only the human can write, all four understand spoken English and eloquently express their opinions about what you say and do. How do they communicate? Well, to focus on the nonhumans: the first day I visited the bonobos I happened to breach the rule, “just sit and observe,” by chatting with a caretaker just outside Panbanisha’s enclosure. Panbanisha heard when the rule was explained to me, and she looked offended and pointed QUIET on her portable keyboard with several hundred word symbols. I shivered with a combination of shame and metaphysical vertigo. A little later, I could not resist the temptation to touch her son’s hand. He ran to mother who was even more upset than before. She approached me with the keyboard and pointed to another symbol. A researcher asked, “Do you want to communicate with Pär?” She answered with the characteristic short high-pitched vocalization that she, Kanzi and Nyota use to answer questions in the affirmative. Her finger remained firmly on the symbol until I identified it and exclaimed: “She’s calling me a MONSTER!”

Being the first author, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh did the following. She asked the bonobos if they wanted to participate in a conversation about what they see as important for their welfare. They answered in the affirmative. During the tape-recorded conversation she presented a list of welfare items that she guessed might be important to them. It was presented as a series of yes-no questions. If there was uncertainty about a reply, the question was rephrased. Not all suggestions met with the bonobos’ approval. The final list of 12 items was presented in tabular form in the article.

Are Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota rightly listed as co-authors? I’ve witnessed the subtlety with which they respond to caretakers’ daily questions about their existence in captive environments. They undoubtedly had more direct verbal input to the article and clearer awareness and approval of their participation than many humans who’ve been listed as co-authors. They certainly were informants who answered questions in conversation with a researcher. But sometimes researchers, especially in ethnography, publish with their informants. I think that choice was particularly apt in this case.

The article concerned the welfare of this group of captive apes. Ever since Kanzi was young, Savage-Rumbaugh treated captivity not as an accidental feature of Kanzi and his family. The fact of captivity cannot be concealed with enrichment items and environments that appear natural for the species (a theme in the article). It is the core of the animal’s existence. If you take captive animals seriously and want to know what their lives can become like, you cannot hide captivity beneath a veneer of “naturalness.” You need to open-mindedly negotiate captivity on a daily basis. Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota are experts on their captive existence. Their language developed in negotiation of it. If you cite the article on their welfare as captive language competent apes, you certainly cite them.

Pär Segerdahl


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