Baboons

Last week's NY Times:

In some of their playback experiments, Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth have tested baboons’ knowledge of where everyone stands in the hierarchy. In a typical interaction, a dominant baboon gives a threat grunt, and its inferior screams. From their library of recorded baboon sounds, the researchers can fabricate a sequence in which an inferior baboon’s threat grunt is followed by a superior’s scream.

Baboons pay little attention when a normal interaction is played to them but show surprise when they hear the fabricated sequence implying their social world has been turned upside down.

This simple reaction says a lot about what is going in the baboon’s mind. That the animal can construe “A dominates B,” and distinguish it from “B dominates A,” means it must be able to break a stream of sounds down into separate elements, recognize the meaning of each, and combine the meanings into a sentence-like thought.

“That’s what we do when we parse a sentence,” Dr. Seyfarth said. Human language seems unique because no other species is capable of anything like speech. But when it comes to perceiving and deconstructing sounds, as opposed to making them, baboons’ ability seems much more language-like.

Be sure to check out the video too. You can tell who the class clowns are.

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