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Talk to the Animals? Yeah, Right

Tom Bethell

We are frequently told that humans, mentally, are continuous with the apes. But it has always been an axiom, devoid of facts. Contrary evidence continues to grow. The latest case for a sharp division between us and the animal world was made by Alison Gopnik in her "Mind and Matter" column in the Wall Street Journal ("Adventures in Experimenting on Toddlers").

She illustrated it by posing this "small IQ test" for newspaper readers:

Suppose you see an experimenter put two orange blocks on a machine, and it lights up. She then puts a green one and a blue one on the same machine, but nothing happens. Two red ones work, a black and white combination doesn’t. Now you have to make the machine light up yourself. You can choose two purple blocks or a yellow one and a brown one.

You figured it out, right? It’s not any particular block that does the trick. Both have to be the same color.

"This simple problem actually requires some very abstract thinking," Gopnik adds. Toddlers as young as 18-to-24-months old "got it right, with just two examples." But other animals had "a very hard time" understanding it. "Chimpanzees can get hundreds of examples and still not get it, even with delicious bananas as a treat." (Chimps do have color vision, in case you were wondering.)

Conventional wisdom has been that toddlers can’t learn this kind of abstract logical principle. Child psychologists such as Jean Piaget "believed that young children’s thinking was concrete and superficial." Gopnik and her assistant now correct that, saying you have to watch what they do, instead of relying on what they say. Gopnik’s article has now been published by the journal Psychological Science.

Ever since Darwin, the idea that there is nothing exceptional about humans has been an axiom of evolutionist thought.

Darwin wrote: "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble & I believe true to consider him created from animals." (See James Rachels, Created from Animals.)

Darwin’s loyal followers, from T.H. Huxley to S.J. Gould and continuing today, have toed that line: We have all been deceived by our pride!

"Chimps and gorillas have long been the battleground of our search for uniqueness," Gould wrote in Ever Since Darwin. He went on:

For if we could establish an unambiguous distinction — of kind rather than of degree — between ourselves and our closest relatives, we might gain the justification long-sought for our cosmic arrogance. The battle shifted long ago from a simple debate about evolution: educated people now accept the evolutionary continuity between humans and apes. But we are so tied to our philosophical and religious heritage that we still seek a criterion for strict division between our abilities and those of chimpanzees.

The main evidence for an unbridgeable mental gulf between humans and animals comes from language. Children of a certain age (not too old!) can learn a new language practically overnight if they are moved to a foreign country. No one knows how it happens.

Numerous attempts to get young chimps to learn the language that small children easily learn have all failed. A detailed account could read like a comedy, but it would be irreverent — to Darwinians — so I shall refrain.

One chimp, Washoe, supposedly learned American Sign Language, but it may have been "confirmation bias." The feat could not be replicated by Nim Chimpsky. Watch the movie Project Nim, about the newborn chimp raised with humans. Nim Chimpsky was defiantly named after Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor who concluded that only humans have the ability to learn languages. Nim couldn’t.

David Berlinski once heard Noam Chomsky say:

Every native speaker of a natural language is capable of producing and understanding infinitely many sentences that he has never heard or spoken before.

Chimps on the other hand, have never been able to speak a single sentence. We would never stop hearing about it if one had.

An expert on linguistics argued in 1975 that until man evolved a bent vocal tract he couldn’t have produced vowel contrasts and therefore he didn’t speak.

This was thought profound, another linguist (Noel Rude) added, "until somebody pointed out that parrots do quite well with just a beak."

The latest craze, with materialism our ruling dogma, has been to turn toward neuroscience. Chimp brains are so similar to human brains, that must be significant, right? Not really. It’s the old homology argument, taken out for a new walk.

The claim of evolutionary continuity, made by Darwin, Gould and others — based on our alleged vanity — is not so much an argument as an accusation. In fact it is an assault on reason, for all along there has been strong evidence that humans are separated from animals not by a mutation but by a chasm.

Alison Gopnik’s fascinating experiment only reinforces that.