Monday, April 30

Lord of the Swell

I was reading a piece by Jesse Bering in Slate the other day, about the innate biological associations between behavior, cognition, culture, and the color red. This is a subject of some interest to me, which is why I clicked on it in the first place; usually I stick to the stuff he writes for Scientific American. Jesse Bering also tends to write articles that are quite long for pop-science, so if I clicked on every link within the text of the article, I'd lose days to one of his pieces.

Exceptions must be made, of course. This time, after finding myself clicking on an enticing link which happened to include "erupting" and "baboon's rump" in a single sentence, I was redirected to... my own blog. This blog. (this page, to be precise).

Now that I have finally "made" it, and become the foremost internet authority on baboon swellings, I guess I will have to keep this place kept up a little better, lest I lose my hard won title. Unfortunately, I do not have any swellings news or insights at this time, but I do have an excellent article to present on baboons and visual symbols, the latter of which I've come to know quite a bit about in the last couple of years.

Monkey See, Monkey Do. Monkey Read?
Monkeys banging on typewriters might never reproduce the works of Shakespeare, but they may be closer to reading Hamlet than we thought. Scientists have trained baboons to distinguish English words from similar-looking nonsense words by recognizing common arrangements of letters. The findings indicate that visual word recognition, the most basic step of reading, can be learned without any knowledge of spoken language

They taught baboons to recognize words! More specifically, the baboons learned to recognize collections of characters, and it looks like they also learned how to extrapolate and apply their rules for what can and cannot be a word to some they'd never seen before. What this does not mean is that the baboons associated meaning with words, and to avoid confusion, we should not say that the baboons were able to read. These animals were able to look at complex stimuli, and say if they made sense as a collection, based on a model they had learned. That's it.

Tsk tsk, Science. Good thing I know better by now.

Make sure to check out the accompanying video to see what the baboons are actually doing, plus, it gives an explanation of how their setup works with a zoo like enclosure, which is pretty slick. This is a pretty crazy experiment, mainly because I wouldn't have though it would work. You could answer the same kind of questions with something less limited than English words, but since it worked, I can't really complain. I've been trying to think of criticisms e.g. how the monkeys could be using an alternate strategy to get the same results, but  so far I haven't come up with anything parsimonious.

Reading is not like other outlets in linguistics. Much of primate research looks at vocalizations, in order to find and identify the roots of human linguistic structures. These days, its all about finding the progenitors of syntax, since its been clearly established that semantics meanings are something apes can learn, even if their vocabularies are limited compared to ours.

Macaques can do it too, and while macaques have different strong points in intelligence compared to baboons, this kind of experiment plays more to their strengths than it does baboons'. This is exciting because macaques do have the ability to connect abstract symbols with semantic meaning (in preparation). The best example comes from Matsuzawa's chimps, and I've been shown videos of them matching colors to Japanese kanji, along with more advanced tasks, but those videos do not appear to be publicly available yet.

Here's the original article on Science if you want to take a look. Also, ResearchBlogging is down, what's up with that?

In other news, just finished the excellent English translation of Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. Coincidence?

Saturday, March 31

Rise of the Apes

In other news, I viewed Rise of the Planet of the Apes the other weekend, and was generally impressed. Primatologists are supposed to be supportive of the movie because it did away with any remaining need for ape actors, by demonstrating that CG apes are just as effective. Inaccurate portrayal of these species must be viewed as a lesser evil, in this light.

"Rise" does a number of good things when it comes to showing off primate behavior, but when it goes wrong, it goes wrong. The scene where Caesar "asks permission" was almost offensive. Not only is this open palm gesture not a natural behavior as indicated, but it doesn't make any sense, behaviorally. Chimps do not ask permission, not in any explicit sense. This error betrays a gross misunderstanding of primate cognition.

Yet, the most unrealistic part of the movie was Caesar's appearance. I understand what they were going for: they wanted to make Caesar look more human, and make his emotive gestures jive with human movie-goers. His sclera are white, his snout is short, and his features are generally softened. Unfortunately, this aesthetic decision sent Caesar into the uncanny valley. He doesn't look like a chimp, and he does not look human, either. He looks unnatural. He was still my favorite character, though.

The other ape characters, like Rocket the alpha chimp, looked remarkably real, more real than I was expecting. The days of ape acting are over; anyone still using live apes in film and photo has no excuse other than greed.

Despite some of the things I've sad, the Oscar for Visual Effects should have been awarded to "Rise" - Hugo's gears and flying papers do not stack up. Maybe they were more challenging from an engineering perspective, but the fact is that the psychology of getting people to believe that human-like creatures are real is a far more impressive accomplishment.

Wednesday, February 29

The Language of Consciousness

Thanks to the wonders of Leap Day, I can now make this post before the end of February. Tis a Leap Day Miracle. I've been doing a lot of writing lately, mostly the dry sciencey kind, but I've had time for some fun stuff on the side, so I have no excuse for not writing more here.

Today, I have a news story for you, which reveals an interesting finding: that chimpanzees are thinking about what other chimps know when they open their big mouths.

Chimpanzees consider their audience when communicating

Researchers found that wild chimps that spotted a poisonous snake were more likely to make their "alert call" in the presence of a chimp that had not seen the threat. This indicates that the animals "understand the mindset" of others.


My criticisms of the paper as they are of the news article, but seeing as the news article is what most people read, it may be of greater lasting importance.

Let me begin by saying that I am not the world's biggest fan of ape language research. In a nutshell, I believe that apes don't need to be using our version of language to communicate in a complex manner. Much of this is the fault of the news media, since the best way to connect with a lay audience is to relate findings to topics the audience is intimately familiar with. Few topics are as strong as language, in this regard.

Entirely absent from this article is any mention of Theory of Mind, which is more what this research is about than language. This is an important finding because it suggest that chimps have mental models of what other chimps know. The soft vocalization in the presence of the snake suggest that they may even model what non-conspecifics, i.e. other species, are aware of.

Most animals flat-out cannot do this. Even in primates, the ability is hotly debated. Baboons, for instance, elaborately model other baboons' relationships with members of the troop, but modeling of immediately state-of-mind is not something we have a lot of evidence to support.

The ability to comprehend that others exist in the same capacity as one's self is one of the major stepping stones to achieving consciousness. Humans have this ability, but it has been doubtful that any other species comes close. The mirror self-recognition test, one of the most difficult to pass and hotly debated tests in animal cognition, only evaluates an animal's ability to recognize its own unique existence, much less the existence of other minds. These recent findings suggest that the chimps have abilities that go far beyond self-recognition; it is very exciting work.