pinker, piaget, and j. fred muggs

has anyone done developmental psychophysiology of non-humans? especially primates.

e.g., we know that humans must learn a language before a certain cut-off date, or else they can not effectively pick up grammar or syntax. has there been any research into such cutoff dates in non-human development (again, esp primates)?


Well, first you would have to establish that non-humans have any language ability at all before you study their language development. I don’t think that’s been done yet.

Communication, yes. Language? No.


Nix, nix. He asked about psychophysiology, not language vs. communication.

What makes me uncomfortable about saying that parrots do not use language is that there’s no way of determining the motivation behind their rather few utterances. In contrast to human beings, how many intelligent teenagers will respond to a complicated question “I guess so”? Does that mean they aren’t using language? Or that they didn’t understand the question?

The OP was hoping for a Piaget of the animal world; I’m not aware of any. There are honest studies being done on chimps, parrots and dolphins, but those animal subjects seem too far removed from ourselves for anyone to be able to make a breakthrough recognizing themselves in animals in the developmental stage.

Sorry, the second paragraph in the OP made me think it was mainly a language-related question.

hazel-rah, don’t worry bout it. i didn’t want to use my second paragraph’s e.g., mainly because i was afraid my OP would be construed as a ‘language in other animals’ question. but i couldn’t think of another example offhand. so i used it anyway.

partly warmer, i dunno about that ‘too far removed’ stuff. seems to me that it’d be easier to establish landmarks in other animals (much as we’ve done with people), only because they are ‘simpler’. that is, we understand some of them well enough that we can design experiments to test specific behaviors.

and since they are ‘simpler’, we could learn a lot about how their neurophysiological development progresses. although it may not apply directly to our own development, any little bit of info helps.

but anyway, i do agree with you about interpretation of animal language (not to hijack this thread, but hell…). who knows why they (animals other than humans) say whatever the hell it is they seem to say? too much of the criticism against alex (the parrot) and koko (the gorilla) is about their lack of grammar and (especially) syntax.

but that lack is a specific lack, namely the lack of human grammar and syntax. and if chomsky is correct in his assumption of universality, then much of grammar comes from internal brain structures. again, human brain structures.

so why the hell should a parrot (taught to communicate like a human) use human grammar?


p.s.- hazel-rah, i see you are in austin. i live in 78723.

I’ve felt for some time that our knowledge of animal development is abysmal compared to that of human development. Alex and koko are examples of well-intentioned and interesting experiments, but ones that have been founded on misassumptions that animal development is some small, proper subset of human development.

Granting that some part of communication is “hard-wired” in the brain, I agree that there’s no reason than an animal that evolved separately from us, and millions of years before, should have the same wiring. Even if elements of their hard-wired grammar were the same as ours, having a different set would automatically affect their high-level though processes.

At one point a couple years ago I took steps along the road of starting a program to teach parrots how to speak using feedback from computers, rather than a human doing the “Polly want a cracker?” method of rote repetition. Unfortunately, it turns out that talking parrots, like chimpanzees, require a great deal of 1-on-1 attention, and parrots, at least, are jealous of attention given to other birds. That made my idea of simultaneously experimenting on 10 birds (so that at least a few of them would turn out to be good talkers) impractical. I entirely abandoned the project, to my family’s relief.

Sally Blanchard is the closest I know of to a parrot psychologist, though quite a lot of her focus is on illness and misbehavior in caged animals. For my purposes, that would be somewhat like studying convicts to understand normal human thinking.

One of the women at work brings in a highly intelligent kitten she adopted from the pound. The cat and I get along very well (partly because I slipped some beef broth in its cat food one day). When the cat is fearful, or sleepy, or hungry, these motivations can be readily identified: I have the same fear of being squashed by something 1,000 times larger, the same droopy eyelids when I’m sleepy, the same “stick my face” in the food urge when hungry.

However the cat’s “higher” thought patterns are quite mysterious. The other day the cat spat at a manager who walked in the office, and continued to do so until they left. At the same time, it reacted normally toward me and toward its owner. A more pervasive example of mysterious higher-order behavior, is why cats find some human activities worth watching, and others boring.