Talking Monkeys

Smart Animals and Talking Monkeys

by Clifford Wilson on October 1, 1982

Originally published in Creation 5, no 2 (October 1982): 6-8.

An eccentric German, named Von Osten, set out to show that animals were as clever as men. He spent two years educating a horse which became known as Clever Hans.1

It would shake its head appropriately for “yes” or “no”, and would communicate in other ways by tapping its foreleg on the ground. Clever Hans could apparently undertake quite difficult math calculations. He could change common fractions into decimals, and could then change them back again. He could even tap out what day of the month it was, tell the time, and shake his head to show that a musical chord had been wrongly played on the piano.

Von Osten did not make money out of his project, and he even allowed others to put questions to the horse. Eventually a commission of eminent zoologists and psychologists studied the animal, and reported that all possibilities of deception had been completely ruled out. Clever Hans’ intelligence was accepted as being substantiated.

However, not everybody was satisfied. One investigator named Oskar Pfungtst initiated another series of tests. This time, questions to be asked of the horse were written on cards, then selected from a pile so that nobody but Horse, Hans, and the questioner knew what the question was. Von Osten Himself was not informed of the question. When asked a question, Clever Hans would begin to tap out an answer, but would keep on tapping all the time, looking intently at the man who had asked Him the question on the card.

Pfungst realized that the horse was in fact, looking for some small movement of the questioner’s head, and he came to the conclusion that Clever Hans was not really giving the answer himself, but was simply looking for an almost undetectable movement of the questioner’s head. Pfungst observed that it was normal for a questioner to relax ever so slightly when the horse got to the right number of taps. Inadvertently and unconsciously they were making a tiny movement. This was what Clever Hans was waiting for.2

Horse Sense

Once Pfungst had discovered this secret, he could then get any answer he liked from the horse. Clever Hans’ truly remarkable ability was in the area of observing, rather than of reasoning. He was not capable of involved rational processes common to humans, but for a reward such as sugar, he could concentrate on his questioner and demonstrate quite incredible powers of observation.3 His “animal” achievement involved self-interest and was reward-orientated.

Chimps at School

Wolfgang Kohler conducted a series of experiments with chimpanzees. In one exercise, the animal was chained to a tree with a stick in reach. It played with the stick for a while, then discarded it. Then a banana was placed in view, but out of reach. The chimp tried to reach it with hands and feet, but eventually grabbed the stick and pulled the banana within reach. The animal has ‘observed’, ‘thought’, and ‘learned’ to use the available means to accomplish a desired end. One situations required the animal to reach outside its cage and haul in a short stick, and then use the short stick to get a longer stick at some distance from the other end of the cage. Having pulled in the longer stick, it could then reach out to get the bunch of bananas some distance away from the cage. This experiment was repeated with a number of chimpanzees, and they all followed the same behaviour pattern - initial frustration, then repeated attempts to tear down the bars, followed by a quieter surveying of the scene, and a working out of the solution to the problem. When all else failed, they used their brains. Kohler even had chimpanzees fitting two short sticks together. They did this to make one long enough to pull in the fruit that was beyond the reach of a short stick. The most direct route to the bananas did not work, so learning had to take place, with a reorganization that involved more than usual application on the part of the chimpanzee.

Monkey Memories

One chimpanzee learned to obtain its food by inserting coloured chips into a slot machine. Having achieved this ability, it was then taught to get the chips from another machine that worked differently. After a time the chimpanzee would undertake the second task independently of the first. It even concentrated on the coloured chips that had the highest food-procuring potential, and stored them away. The chimps basic drive for food led to its learning this new but related skill. The fact is, chimpanzees (and other animals) are able to learn separate parts of a task, and then bring the parts together to achieve a meaningful end. Undoubtedly many more animals will be found to exhibit “intelligent” behaviour when we humans find the time to look for it. It is also obvious from the experiments, that in order for an animal to resolve a problem, there needs to be sufficient motivation. If they are hungry enough, they are more likely to solve a problem if they know they will be rewarded with food. Human learning also has clear motivational patterns, but these are not so blatantly related to reward behaviour as with chimpanzees and other animals.

Out of the Mouth of Bab …

When it comes to language, there are basic differences in the ways chimpanzees and children communicate using words. The differences highlight the nature of the barriers between such things as babies and baboons. It takes several years of intensive training to enable chimpanzees to learn to make use of between 100-200 word signals but by three years of age a child has acquired a “vocabulary of some 1,000 words”.5 At five years of age this figure has about doubled. In contrast to that the chimp “Sarah has a vocabulary of about 130 terms, that she uses with a reliability of between 75 and 80 percent.”6 We read something similar about the chimpanzee called Washoe, who by the age of five had learned 132 signs of American sign language. Washoe learned more signs, but compared with a normal five year old child, her progress was dramatically “retarded.”

What’s in a Name?

One of the most dramatic stories about learning language is that of Helen Keller. When she first realized that her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was telling her that the thing falling on her hand was “water”, she raced around the garden with her teacher, asking for the names of object after object. A new world had opened to her, and dramatic changes in her personality were soon to follow. When she labeled an object, it was thereby identified for her, and it became in a sense an extension of herself. Chimpanzees also demonstrate some ability to label both people and things. When Mr. E. Linden firstly met Washoe, the chimp looked at her trainer, then traced a question mark in the air and pointed at Mr. Linden. She really was asking who he wash On another occasion a chimpanzee named Lucy noticed the alligator insignia on a male visitor’s white shirt, she pointed to it and traced and question mark in the air. The visitor gave back a sign that was meant to imitate the snapping motion of an alligator’s jaw. When he came back the next day, the trainer asked chimp Lucy who he was. The chimp made the sign for “alligator”. By naming the visitor in this way, the chimp was able to show that she could bring together different aspects of objects put before her. In a similar way, using sign language, Lucy labeled citrus fruits as “smell fruits”; but after she ate some reddish she called it a “cry hurt food”. All this points to the fact that chimps have a basic ability to label.

“Children go about the House … Naming things”

Children label too - and love it. At some time in the second six months of life, most children say their first intelligible word. “A few months later most children are saying many words, and some children go about the house all day long naming things (tabble, doggie, ball, etc.) and actions (play, see, drop, etc.), and an occasional quality (blue, broke, bad, etc.)”~. Early in the acquisition of language, children are involved in labeling. It is an integral part of the young child’s life. Their labeling capacity is greatly superior to that of the chimpanzee, and they show great, and often embarrassing inquisitiveness about the actual names of the objects and people in their environment. The fact that children know so many words by the time they are three, indicates that labeling is a dramatic and important part of human activity. At best, chimpanzees have this ability in only an elementary state when compared with the highly developed form demonstrated by young children.

Chimps and Chumps

Chimpanzees do have intelligence. They do have general learning abilities, limited though they are (by comparison to those of human infants). They can ‘learn’ words, but the don’t ‘acquire’ language naturally. Humans on the other hand are uniquely endowed with a specific language ability which means that even the below average child will ‘acquire’ language progressively until about the onset of puberty. After that time, humans must ‘learn’ language the same way as any other human skill is learned—by diligent application, and not by the relatively easy process of exposure and interaction, which is the way children acquire language. Monkeys never acquire language, they can learn a limited amount of one, and that’s all. There is an alternative, unacceptable to most academics, largely because they will not open their minds to the possibility, —“man was directly created by Almighty God, created to be the friend of God, able to commune with Him by speech/language.”


The various experiments which have produced language learning in chimpanzees have been achieved by methods that are not those used by all normal babies around the world, who spontaneously and sequentially acquire speech/language. Other creatures communicate in various ways, using various senses and body organs, but only man LS able to communicate by means of true speech/language. This type of speech is “species-specific”. It is confined to man who is made in the image of God. Because of this uniqueness, man is able to communicate with his fellow man and also worship God.


  1. Psychology, the Science of Mental Life, pp.235–236.
  2. Ibid., p.236.
  3. Ibid., p.236.
  4. Elaborated in THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THINKING, Robert Thomson. p.40.
  5. Lennegberg. E.H., “on Explaining Language’ in Science 164(3880) May 9, 1969.
  6. TEACHING LANGUAGE TO AN APE. op.cit., p.92.
  7. Linden, op.cit., p.12.
  8. Ibid. p.106.
  9. Psycholinguistics, p.77.
  10. Noam Chomsky article “Language And The Mind” in “Child Language”, p.435, as reprinted from Psychology Today, February, 1965.

This material has been specially adapted from Clifford Wilson’s book Monkeys Will Never Talk, or Will They?


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