Monkey Hear, Monkey Know

on July 11, 2009

BBC News: “Monkeys Recognise ‘Bad Grammar’”

If you ain’t no good speaker of English, maybe you should talk to one o’ them thar monkeys to straight’n ya out.

An experiment performed on cotton-top tamarin monkeys suggests that they may have the ability to recognize inconsistent grammar. Reporting in the journal Biology Letters, scientists describe playing a series of different words to the monkeys over a loudspeaker. Each of the words shared either the same first syllable or second syllable, such as “‘shoy-bi,’ ‘shoy-la,’ ‘shoy-ro,’ and so on,” according to head researcher Ansgar Endress, who continued, “The idea is that they get used to the pattern if you play it long enough.” In another test, the second syllable stayed the same, with such words as “bi-shoy” and “la-shoy” playing over the loudspeaker.

Apparently the primates paid more attention to words that violated the pattern.

The monkeys heard either the first or second group of words for a half hour one day to “familiarize” them. But the next day, the researchers played a new set of words, some of which were consistent and others inconsistent with the grammatical pattern in the words played the day before.

“We simply measured how often the monkeys looked to the speaker when we played the items,” explained Endress. “If they got used to, or bored by, the pattern, then they might be more interested in items that violate [it]—because they are something new—than in items that are consistent with the pattern.” Apparently the primates paid more attention to words that violated the pattern.

According to study member Marc Hauser, “Simple temporal ordering is shared with non-human animals. This has an important role. In bird song or whale song, for example, there’s a temporal ordering to the notes and that's critical for communication.” The team members believe their study shows that human language acquisition relies on unlearned memory processes that are not language specific. The team claims this furthers our understanding of the “evolution of language.”

The ability to recognize patterns is, indeed, necessary for communication—whether in humans or animals. As creationists, we should not be surprised that creatures have a pre-programmed pattern-recognition capability—a designed feature that defies the ability of accidental mutations. Animal communication does not show that language evolved; it shows that communication is central to life as God designed it.


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