Book Review: Language of the Apes?

Vina Pulido | vina.pulido@yale.edu November 22, 2008

If you opened Gregory Radick’s The Simian Tongue expecting to learn about how monkeys communicate, you would be both right and wrong. Although the book contains some brief discussion about the words used by monkeys, the focus is more on the people who were involved in discovering this phenomenon, a dense history of the debate on the language barrier between humans and animals.

Radick is a Senior Lecturer in History of Philosophy and Science at the University of Leeds, so the content of The Simian Tongue should come as no surprise. Textual support is abundant, including quoted letters and notations by famous historical figures such as Charles Darwin.

However, it is superbly organized, with an outline-style introduction at the beginning of the book and at the beginning of each chapter, so readers are not lost in the details.

The Simian Tongue begins with an introduction to Max Muller, the philologist who initiated the debate about the language barrier. According to Muller, reason and language are inextricably linked; thus, if animals cannot speak, they cannot reason. Thus, only humans have both abilities.

Muller also believed that language did not evolve gradually, but rather involved a jump. That is, language began with the first human and no animal before that. Of course, this hypothesis challenges Darwin’s theory of evolution, which asserts that all changes were gradual. The first two chapters discuss the debate in exhaustive detail, including all the key players, their heated arguments via written correspondence, and the subtle nuances in their differing philosophies.

Radick then introduces another important character, Professor Garner, and his novel experiments using the newly invented Edison phonograph. Instead of dryly listing the facts, however, Radick provides historical and personal context, relating how and why each scientist became interested in his or her chosen subject.

For instance, Garner was a school teacher who stumbled upon the language barrier debate at a town meeting when he made an innocent but controversial comment about animals having their own sort of language. From there, he began to research the nascent subject, moving on to experiments in front of monkey exhibits at the New York Zoo.

He recorded monkey chatter with a phonograph and then replayed these sounds to observe the monkey’s reactions. According to his interpretations, monkeys do have a language of their own, with a vocabulary comprising approximately forty words. However, due to many tragic circumstances, Garner was labeled a fraud. Although Radick is typically objective, he here tends to favor Garner’s explanations of the situation. Even so, he warns that one can never be completely sure.

 

Radick explains that around the same time as Garner’s experiments, fossils of Java man, an ape hominid and a sort of missing link between apes and humans, were discovered in 1891-92. Therefore, until only three decades ago, the debate about the evolutionary barrier between humans and animals shifted focus towards fossil evidence rather that ape experiments.

It was not until 1980 that playback experiments were attempted again, yet without knowledge of Garner’s experiments a century earlier. In these experiments, vervet monkeys were recorded in the wild and their alarm calls played back to them. Although the vervets seem to be able to distinguish between snakes, eagles, and other predators by the type of call, it is unclear whether they use the semantics or the context. Radick’s tale ends with the vervet alarm call playback experiments, although research is ongoing.

Radick’s goal was to “explain how primate playback experiment came to be invented when it was, how it came to disappear when it did, and how it came to be reinvented when it was” (378). In the course of trying to fulfill this objective, Radick went far beyond his stated aims, providing a background rich with scientific intrigue, little-known facts, and painstakingly thorough explanations.

Yet, because Radick focuses less on the science than on the people, I would recommend The Simian Tongue primarily to those interested in the history of science, and of evolution in particular. Teeming with historical facts and some scientific descriptions, Radick’s new book delivers what it promises and even more.

Book Information
The Simian Tongue
By Gregory Radick
University of Chicago Press, 2008, 572 pp.
ISBN: 0226702243