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.