Date: Mon, 2 Jan 2006 17:14:08 +0100 From: Anne Reboul Subject: Kanzi's Primal Language: The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language
AUTHORS: Segerdahl, Pär; Fields, William; Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue TITLE: Kanzi's Primal Language SUBTITLE: The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan YEAR: 2005
Anne Reboul, Research Team ''Linguistics, Pragmatics and Cognition'', Institute for Cognitive Sciences, CNRS, France
SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
The book is made of four chapters, a summary of the design features (of language) and appendixes.
The first chapter bears a narrative title: 'How Kanzi acquires language in a forest in Georgia' and opens with an introduction on 'Culture in animals'. Japanese primatologists were the first to endow animals, notably great apes and more specifically chimpanzees with culture, making it ''one of our 'natural' possession -- one that humans share with many other animal species'' (2). The main ideas of the authors center around a major difference between first- and second-language acquisition as well as around the notion of a shared culture between bonobos and their human caretakers, the so-called 'Pan/Homo culture', with an emphasis on the 'spontaneity' of both the culture and the language. A specificity of the LRC (Language Research Center, Atlanta) lies in not trying to teach language to apes based on a specific view of language. Rather ''Kanzi acquired language similarly as human children do: spontaneously and without training'' (3), understanding English far in excess of what he could express on the keyboard of lexigrams. This led Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues to three features of language acquisition: spontaneity, precedence of comprehension over production and importance of early exposition. A new view now developed in LRC is that ''first- language acquisition occurs as an aspect of (...) 'enculturation''' (7). It leads to a primal language, a ''cultural matrix'', which in turn may allow the acquisition of a second language. Thus, ''what is acquired in childhood (...) is fundamentally different from a specific language'' (7). On this view, culture can be defined both as non-genetically transmitted information and as a content leading to a shared way of living. A major hypothesis is that ''by describing the cultural dimension of language, it becomes possible to hypothesize a gene-culture evolution of human language'' (9) though language acquisition by bonobos suggests that it is a cultural arrangement of traits selected for other functions. On this view, language is an undetachable part of culture (conceived as a way of life) and cannot be studied apart from a shared culture.
The authors then turn to the previously published experimental study of Kanzi's understanding of English (see Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1993).These were carefully planned to show that Kanzi understood ''human language in the formal sense demanded by many linguists'' (15).They then turn to a comparison of the way Kanzi acquired language and the way Nim (Terrace's chimpanzee) was taught it, Kanzi through living in a rich shared cultural environment, Nim in a bare classroom. In other words, Kanzi acquired language as human children acquire their first language, while Nim was taught language as children are taught a second language. The dimensions of first language acquisition are cultural in the above sense, which is not the case for second language acquisition. In other words, ''*our primal language is an intrinsic aspect of culture. First-language acquisition is enculturation*'' (22, authors' emphasis). And, ''*our primal language is the cultural matrix of specific languages*'' (25, idem).
The second chapter is devoted to the ''Design features of language''. It begins with the quest for precursors of language in ape interaction, for which the authors enumerate: cooperative hunting, cultural transmission of tool use, empathy and reconciliation, manipulating the behavior of conspecifics. They then turn to the well-known catalogue of design features of language proposed by Charles Hockett in 1963). It is criticized as being too grammar-based and the authors propose to replace it with a culture-based catalogue, insisting that their aim is conceptual clarification: based on how Kanzi acquired language, we can more realistically assess what language is and its significance in biology than through context-independent research. This leads to the following list of design features: spontaneity (as evidenced in how Kanzi acquired language); boundlessness (no demarcation between language and life: life changes with language acquisition through enculturation, conceived as a biologically grounded process); immanence (life is permeated with language and language acquisition changed Kanzi's body and his mind); cultural creativity and generality (''linguistic creativity is a variant of the creativity of the primate way of life'' (45) and the distinction between language and language use -- or semantics and pragmatics -- should be abandoned); placement (replacing Hockett's feature of displacement: ''*linguistic communications, even about things remote in space and time, are placed in, or belong to, cultural activities acquired with the primal language*'' (55, authors' emphasis)); gestures and tools (gestures are central to language as they manifest what the speaker (e.g. Kanzi) means: ''language is to a great extent a visible phenomenon: an aspect of our enculturated body'' (62)); culture-sustained vocal speech and other media (Kanzi vocalize in an English-like way and his human carers understand his vocalizations through their common Pan/Homo culture); cultural unity (language is grounded in an interpersonally shared culture); non-arbitrariness (though signs may be arbitrary, their uses are not and hence neither is primal language); reflexivity (the only feature common with Hockett's catalogue: manifested in bonobos through checking that communication went through); flexible interface of primate interactions (allows for apes' acquiring language through commonalities of primate interaction, including human interaction); moral and personal dimensions (''there is no such thing as a neutral observer of the apes' language'' (90)).
The third chapter bears the intriguing title of ''Ambiguous human culture''. It deals with the revolution that the Kanzi experiment (his spontaneously acquiring language) wreaks on his human entourage conceptualization of language and should, according to the authors, change the general view about language which language research blindly assumes, replacing it by the catalogue of design features given in the previous chapter. They defend Pan/Homo culture against such strictures as de Waal's when he defends the notion of culture in nature, by claiming that ''what apes acquire by being raised in human culture is not alien to what they are as primates'' (104). In other words, the specific Pan/Homo culture which developed around Kanzi could do so because both bonobos and humans are apes, i.e. sensitive to culture. They turn to another criticism, i.e. that ape language research is anthropocentric. This, though true to some extent, is not true of what happened at LRC because language acquisition proceeded spontaneously there. Thus the LRC results can only be criticized as anthropocentric if one clings to a view of language which ignores its cultural aspects. Hence scepticism regarding Kanzi's language (as happens for instance with some of his caregivers) is an illustration of that myopic attitude towards language; linguists, by developing a professional culture, get insensitive and clumsy toward natural manifestations of language. This is not only true of linguists but of scientists in general who end up putting more emphasis on formal aspects of experimental design than on the content of the test. This, according to the authors, hints at what Wittgenstein called ''experimental methods and *conceptual confusion*'' (quoted by the authors, 123, authors' emphasis). This was, for instance, true, regarding Tomasello's insistence on a scientific test of imitation in bonobos, when he had just seen a natural instance of it.
Though Tomasello acknowledged imitation of bonobos after their success at such a test, he still insists on ''a uniquely human motivation to share intentions'' (127), thus giving rise to a ratchet effect in cultural innovation. If Tomasello were right, then ''Kanzi as we know him is impossible or at least he cannot imitate'' (127). Tomasello's account of Kanzi's abilities is through human teaching, making Kanzi a parasite on human culture. In other words, Tomasello errs by ignoring the shared Pan/Homo culture. Thus, ''tests and statistics are important, but they cannot replace coming to know Kanzi and experiencing what it means to talk with him'' (138). This specific interpersonal experience is irreplaceable. The ambiguity of human culture is thus the ambiguity of the human culture as lived on an everyday basis and of the human culture as a specific instance of a scientific culture, in this specific instance, linguists' culture. There, we should take the Socratic stance: not bow to the superior knowledge embodied by scientific cultures, but just acknowledge that the only thing we can know with any certainty is our universal ignorance, apart from our lives as we live them. His scientific culture was what blinded Herbert Terrace to whatever language he had been able to teach Nim despite the obvious shortcomings in his pedagogic approach.
Chapter 4 is devoted to 'What does it mean to study language?', a question approached via an agonist comparison with Chomsky's view of language. The first reproach the authors address to Chomsky is his neglect and indeed immediate rejection of common-sense usage as a way of addressing language-related questions. Indeed the Chomskyan choice of I-language (the inner, biologically based system) as an object of scientific inquiry suggests to the authors the restriction of language to an intellectually introvert mechanism, detached from its social and cultural aspects. Thus Chomsky reduces language studies to a technical perspective, claiming that ''*language as we already experience it is caused by language in the technical sense, through the mediating activity of certain performance systems*'' (164, authors' emphasis). In fact, where empirical scientists, such as the authors, allow themselves a certain amount of experiential friction and thus conceptual questioning, scientists such as Chomsky aim at avoiding empirical friction and at postponing conceptual questioning. Thus Chomskyan linguistics is concerned with an idealization, competence, which cannot be empirically investigated, and thinks that ''idealization takes us straight up to reality in the highest degree'' (167). Hence, ''language as a common human phenomenon is, from the perspective of the postulated invisible ideal, hardly language at all'' (167). This can only rests on the introduction by Chomsky ''of a mind/body dualism to downplay the importance of experience'' (167). Indeed, ''Chomsky is so certain of what the evidence *must* be evidence for, that he puts aside the question of what the evidence, if studied more closely, actually *might* be evidence for'' (171).
Thus, the best that Chomskyan linguistics can do is investigate ''traditional grammar as it is integrated into our educational system and learned by most citizens'' (172), in other words, investigate our primal language as if it were a second language. The authors then turn to the vexed question of innate or learned to dismiss the distinction as too categorical. The developmental process of language acquisition is enculturation. Kanzi's spontaneous development of language ''indicates that the human environment that had this effect on him was not an artefact, but shaped by the fact that we too are primates'' (179), just as does human children's linguistic acquisition. The authors then turn to Tomasello's cultural account of language acquisition, based on specifically human and biologically based mindreading and imitation: this means that whereas human children would acquire language based on their mindreading and imitative abilities ('stealing adult language'), apes could only acquire it through ostension ('being given language by adults'). However, ''acquiring language is to a great extent a frighteningly and excitingly *creative and transforming process*'' (191, Authors' emphasis). We can only imitate what we already know how to do. Imitation chiefly works because we imitate conspecifics, apes like ourselves. Language is not transferred from adult to child anymore than it was transferred to Kanzi from his human entourage: it ''emerges (...) as an aspect of this dynamic life with others'' (194), as long as others are apes. Thus ''our biology is plastic and updateable: culture is our updated biology'' (195). Over-interpreting young apes is the way of leading them to verify these very interpretations: ''the fact that Kanzi has language means that he would speak and listen to you. The simplicity of the fact is its significance'' (199).
Then come the summary, i.e. ''The catalogue of design features'' (a list of the design features of language, as identified by the authors, with short commentaries) and two appendixes, the first a presentation of the apes in the LRC project with four bonobos on the human side and four bonobos on the bonobo side of the Pan/Homo culture, the second a description of the keyboard used as a communicative interface.
'Kanzi's primal language' is a profoundly annoying book in that it both is very likeable and at the same time very disappointing. It presents some quite valuable insights, but these, even when explicitly presented as such, are buried beneath exaggerated and ill-argued claims. Maybe the most irritating feature of the book lies the reiterated and never argued assertion of Kanzi's language: it may be that Kanzi has language in a full-human sense, though this can mainly be assessed in the 1993 monograph in which experimental data comparing Kanzi's understanding of spoken English with that of a 18- 24 months old child was presented. Clearly his production is far from anything like a human language and even his understanding, as described in 1993, does not justify that assertion (for a discussion, see Anderson 2004 and my review, Reboul 2005). Thus, it strongly seems that the 'fact' of Kanzi's language resorts more to begging the question than to a proven scientific fact. Indeed, the whole book seems to be a circular attempt to change the scientific approach of language, based on the 'fact' of Kanzi's language, with the further goal of justifying that Kanzi indeed has language in a human sense through that change of scientific paradigm regarding language research. There may be examples of innocuous circularity, but it is hard not to see this specific attempt as viciously circular.
Yet, there is much that is worth reading in this book, in addition to the extraordinary human-animal story involved in the relations between Kanzi and his human entourage, especially his relation with Savage- Rumbaugh: for instance, for a pragmatist, much of what is said about language acquisition as a social process makes sense, though I would tend to insist that this is mainly the case for lexical acquisition. Again, up to a point, it may well be that such a social process of lexical acquisition could legitimately be described as an enculturation process, given the role of words in concept creation and acquisition in childhood (see, e.g. Waxman and Markow 1995), independently of any debatable linguistic relativity hypothesis. However, does it mean that Kanzi has language or that grammar is a mere theoretical construct with no or very little relation to language? This seems to be what the authors think, especially in view of their harsh criticism of Chomsky's research program in the last chapter of the book. However, there is no clear argument in the whole book which could reasonably lead to that conclusion. The most that could be claimed is that though Kanzi does not have language in the Chomskyan sense, Kanzi has language in the Savage-Rumbaughian sense. But this, presumably legitimate, claim reduces the whole project behind the book to a merely terminological quibble, whereas clearly the authors' aim was substantive: changing a scientific paradigm is not, after all, merely changing terminology and the question of whether Kanzi has anything like a human language, as opposed to a sophisticated human-induced communication system, remains. Does he?
As discussed by Anderson (2004), though Kanzi has some sort of grammar, as shown in the 1993 experiments, this does not seem to be a grammar on a par with human grammars as described by generativists. Of course, one can deny that such descriptions have any validity in describing languages and take them identical with the normative prescriptions used to teach grammar in school. However, contrary to the authors' claim in the last chapter, there are empirical investigations of such grammars, not only based on what the authors clearly take to be dubious empirical facts (i.e., non-attested examples, condemned as based on 'idealization'), but based on experimental data collected in psycho-linguistic experiments. What is more, some of this data is collected in young children, during language acquisition, and strongly justifies the Chomskyan view of grammar (for a host of highly interesting data of such kind, see Julien Musolino's website with downloadable papers: http://www.indiana.edu/%7Eplp/). Of course, it is still open to the authors to claim that grammar is epiphenomenal in language, and even in human language, but this comes very close to claiming that language is merely communication and in this case, the authors should go one step further and claim language not only for Kanzi and apes raised in human surroundings, but for all domestic animals (especially pets) and ultimately all animal species in which some form of communication exists. Given the fact that communication is widespread among animal species, this is clearly a slippery slope and one, what is more, that the authors cannot follow, given their ultimate goal, which seems to be a vindication of the claim that Kanzi has language in the human sense, this being explained through a common ape heritage.
Let me finish with a few words about the basis of this claim in the book. The book clearly sets aside the 1993 experiments, claiming that assessment of Kanzi's language can only be made through shared living with him. As clearly not everyone interested in whether Kanzi has language can share his everyday life, the book gives a host of anecdotal evidence for language in Kanzi and the other three bonobos 'on the human side of the Pan/Homo culture'. This is not the place to revive the controversy over the use of anecdotal evidence in animal studies: such evidence is probably valuable as long as it is taken cautiously and eventually leads to experimental evidence. What is interesting however is the content of the anecdotes given: in quite a few of them the evidence for language consists in what is called gaze alternation, i.e. in a communicative episode, the communicator looks at his addressee to evaluate the success of her communicative act and repeats it if it has failed (this is also the data proposed as evidence for reflexivity in Kanzi's language). This is taken as evidence for the fact that the communicator means something, in a Gricean sense, inside the shared Pan/Homo culture.
However, and this is where the slippery slope raises its ugly head again, this kind of behaviour is evidenced in some domestic pets: cats and dogs do it routinely if their human owners do not satisfy their requests. In the same way, the authors devote part of the first chapter in discussing the fact that language is not made of sentences, given that isolated words can do proxy for sentences (e.g., ''Who came?''; ''John''). But recent work (see Kaminsky et al. 2004) shows that domestic dogs not only understand words but show fast mapping. On that count, the authors might reply that domestic animals, notably dogs, have developed a Canis/Homo culture (this, interestingly, is almost certainly a justified claim for most domestic animals: humans have a very long history of symbiotic living with other species and of modifying the very biology of these species. The recent acceleration of this process should not blind us to the fact that this is a process which has been going on for several thousands of years). But then what price the claim of the Pan/Homo culture as a natural extension of our shared primate nature, allowing for spontaneous acquisition of human language by non-human apes? We have a common culture with species with whom we do not share a primate culture and with whom we have developed communication, though we do not want to claim language for them...
Thus, 'Kanzi's primal language' is a highly annoying book, full of valuable insights in the nature of communication and culture as well as of more debatable claims about human language. The circular nature of the argumentation, resting on the petitio principii that Kanzi has language in the human sense, certainly does nothing to validate the authors' attempt to change scientific paradigms of language investigation or indeed their more general attempt to discredit idealization in scientific inquiry.
Anderson, S. R. (2004), Dr. Dolittle's delusion. Animals and the uniqueness of human language, Harvard, Yale University Press.
Hockett, C. F. (1963), ''The problems of universals in language'', in Greenberg, J.H. (ed.), Universals of language, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.
Kaminsky, J., Call, J. and Fischer, J. (2004), ''Word learning in a domestic dog: Evidence for ''fast mapping'''', Science 304, 1682-1683.
Reboul, A. (2005), Review of Anderson (2004), http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-706.html.
Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Murphy, J., Sevcic, R. A., Brakke, K. E., Williams, S. L. and Rumbaugh, D. M. (1993), Language comprehension in ape and child, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 233/58, 3-4.
Waxman, S. R. and Markow, D. B. (1998), ''Object properties and object kind: twenty-one-month-old infants' extension of novel adjectives'', Child Development 69, 1313-29.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Anne Reboul is a First Class Research Fellow at the French Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics (EHESS, Paris) and a Ph.D. in philosophy (University of Geneva, Switzerland). She has written some books, among which an Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Pragmatics and quite a few papers in French and English, on pragmatics and/or philosophic subjects. She has developed an interest in recent years in both language evolution and animal cognition and communication.