Monday, December 13, 2004
Before long, monkeys may be able to communicate with humans
In a laboratory in central Japan, monkeys are behaving strangely. If someone sticks out a tongue, they do the same. If a person goes to unclip the latch on a box, the monkeys follow suit. If the monkeys need a rake to reach a piece of fruit, they ask for it with a special call. All of which is confounding experts, because none of it should be possible. Monkeys in the wild rarely ape, and as far as we know, they never, ever, ask for rakes.
The Japanese macaques raised in Atsushi Iriki's lab are not particularly gifted. But he expects them to be communicating vocally with him soon, using simple linguistic rules. This isn't just an elegant Dr Dolittle curiosity: it holds the real possibility of understanding autism in humans and unlocking the vast unused power of the human brain.
Iriki, head of the laboratory for symbolic cognitive development at the Riken Brain Science Institute, says his experiment will tap into neural systems monkeys always have had, but have never been activated. He hopes to learn something about monkey thought, but more dramatically, about how language emerged in humans - and what happens when it breaks down.
As the ape brain evolved, it accumulated the components of a language. By the time the vocal tract could support speech, we were already human. But our brains, according to Iriki, were "language-ready" much earlier. In the monkey, this happened in a more fragmented form. The only reason it did not emerge was that the conditions were never right.
Iriki knew that monkeys would never be able to speak, lacking as they do the necessary vocal apparatus, but he became convinced he could exchange meaningful coos and grunts with them. To do so, he would have to rear monkeys in an environment which to communicate in this way was in their interest.
Posted by C. at 1:22 PM