Chimpanzees Are Excellent Listeners

Panzee passes her phonics test, and Nim stars in a movie.

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Voice changers don’t fool her! Panzee, a 25-year-old chimp, has been impressing psychologists at Georgia State University with her language skills. Her performance is featured in Current Biology.

Panzee has been raised with humans and can point to a symbolic lexigram containing 128 words “when she hears the corresponding spoken word.” Now that Panzee has received her education, psychologist Lisa Heimbauer’s team has put her to the test. Can Panzee recognize those words when sounds are distorted?

Two types of voice-changing technology were used to develop a 48-word test, and the same test was taken by 32 people. Panzee scored 55% compared to the humans’ 70% on one test. Panzee and the human group both scored 40% with the other voice changer.

Critical of the experiment’s validity, Loyola psychologist J.D. Trout points out that the people didn’t really take the same test. Panzee’s test was multiple choice, and each question offered four choices. Human subjects just listened and “wrote down what they heard.”1 Furthermore, zebra finches have demonstrated similar excellent phonetic perception.2 Therefore, it appears that fine phonetic discrimination is not limited to primates anyway. Trout says, “These experiments don't bear on the question of whether speech is a special adaptation of humans.”

Despite criticism of the experimental design, Heimbauer’s team maintains that “Panzee's strong performance argues against the idea that humans evolved highly attuned speech-recognition abilities only after they split from the chimp line some 5 million to 7 million years ago” (emphasis ours). She adds, “Auditory processing abilities that already existed in a common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans may have been sufficient to perceive speech.”3

Recounting a different ape language experiment, the movie Project Nim being released this summer will tell the story of Nim Chimpsky. Nim was raised by humans to prove that “an ape—if raised and nurtured like a human child—could learn to communicate using sign language,” according to a publicity statement at the Sundance Film Festival. It adds, “If successful, the consequences of the project would be profound, breaking down the barrier between man and his closest animal relative and fundamentally redefining what it is to be human” (emphasis ours). Filmmaker James Marsh commented that “Nim's great linguistic discovery is that he invents a sign for ‘play.’”4

Both projects assume that humans and chimps evolved from a common ancestor. They seek to answer whether language evolved before or after we diverged from the evolutionary tree. Thus, even if secular linguists decide language is a uniquely human ability, they will continue to ask how it evolved, never questioning the “fact” of our evolution.

The limited concepts animals can communicate cannot compare to the human ability to express and understand original abstract thoughts with language. Phonetic perception and a symbol for play do not prove chimps have true linguistic capacity or common ancestry with humans.

So what does it mean to be human? Secular science fails to acknowledge the uniquely spiritual nature of human beings. Anatomically, humans are vertebrates, mammals, and primates. But humans are not animals; only humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Therefore, those aspects of human-ness that result from our spiritual nature will forever be unexplainable to those seeking answers in ancestral biology.

Evolutionary thinking, at its root, pretends we humans are not accountable to God or responsible to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Creator and Redeemer.

Linguistic experiments, genome analysis, and fossils will never reveal what it means to be human. But the Bible does. Quoting from a Peanuts cartoon, creationist researcher Marvin Lubenow recounts Charlie Brown telling Snoopy, “You dogs are so lucky. You don’t have to worry about things like sin and salvation.” Snoopy replies, “Yes, theologically speaking, we dogs are off the hook.”5 Evolutionary thinking, at its root, pretends we humans are not accountable to God or responsible to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Creator and Redeemer. But fooling ourselves with assumptions from secular science will never get us “off the hook” with God.

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  1. Bruce Bower, “Chimp Has an Ear for Talk,” ScienceNews, July 8, 2011,
  2. Verena R. Ohms et al, “Zebra Finches Exhibit Speaker-Independent Phonetic Perception of Human Speech,” Proc. R. Soc. B (December 2, 2009): doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1788.
  3. Bower, “Chimp Has an Ear for Talk.”
  4. Matt Singer, “James Marsh’s Pet ‘Project Nim’,” IFC, July 4, 2011,
  5. Marvin Lubenow, Bones of Contention (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 307.


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