Music and primate cognition

Music and primate cognition

Yesterday, Koko the gorilla had a visit from her friend Flea, the bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who brought along his Fender bass and Galean Kruger to play some music with the old girl.  After watching him intently for a few moments, she tentatively reached for the instrument and began imitating Flea’s movements.  Its pretty obvious that she’s instinctively entranced by the ability to produce sound with her hands, but how much of this is merely a primate “aping” observed behavior and how much is actual nonverbal communication or cognition?

It’s been conclusively proven that apes are able to communicate with humans, and this alone is a testament to primate cognition. But there has been a spirited debate over the last 40 years over the nature of using language in the same way humans do. A genuine difference between ape and human communication appears to be the motivation behind communication. Humans spontaneously communicate about the things around them: Adults make small talk with the grocery store clerk about the weather; a toddler points out a dog on the street to her parents; we post status updates and argue with each other over politics on Facebook.

Unlike us, however, it seems that apes don’t care to chitchat. Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that studies with Kanzi, the famous signing Bonobo chimpanzee, show that only 4 percent of his signs are commentary, meaning the other 96 percent are all functional signs, asking for food or toys. Similar skepticism about Koko emerged in the 1980s, when Herb Terrace, Nim Chimpsky’s former foster parent, published a fairly scathing critique of ape language research, leading to a back-and-forth with Patterson via passive-aggressive letters to the editor of the New York Review of Books. Among other criticisms, Terrace asserted that Koko’s signs were not spontaneous but instead elicited by Patterson asking her questions. Patterson defended her research methods, then signed off from the debate, saying her time would be “much better spent conversing with the gorillas.”

It will be interesting to see where this leads in the future, for as we learn more about how other primates and animals think and communicate, we will undoubtedly unlock more mysteries about ourselves.