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?