Behavioral and Brain Sciences Journal,
Volume 01 - Issue 04 - December 1978
A Special Issue on Cognition and Consciousness in Nonhuman Species
1. Premack, D., Woodruff, G.
Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?
BBS 1978 1 (4): 515.
2. Griffin, D.R.
Prospects for a cognitive ethology.
BBS 1978 1 (4): 527.
3. Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S., Rumbaugh, D.R., Boysen, S.
Linguistically-mediated tool use and exchange by chimpanzees (Pan
BBS 1978 1 (4): 539.
What follows is a commentary on the above by A.Sloman
What about their internal languages?
1978 1 (4): 602.
WHAT ABOUT THEIR INTERNAL LANGUAGES?
Cognitive Studies Programme
School of Social Sciences
University of Sussex
Now at University of Birmingham, UK
1 Fun, but so what?
All three papers are, of course, fascinating sources of information about some of
the things chimpanzees and bees can do. It is comforting to
have rigorous laboratory observations to reinforce and augment what
every dog-owner or circus-goer knows about the rich mental life of
other animals. No doubt anecdotal evidence cannot be as
important for the advance of science as papers which resound with
such phrases as `the altered performance was again accompanied
by a noticeable orientation of the attentional response'
(SRB page 11).
Behaviourists will surely cower and tremble before PW's ingenious
use (page 25) of the anti-behaviourist beliefs of apes!
And finally, we must welcome Griffin's use of philosophy to push
away some behaviourist barriers to scientific insight, even if
both mentalists and behaviourists prove unable to provide
theories with deep explanatory power.
Yet despite their virtues, and the evident satisfaction with which these
authors put down their intellectual
rivals, I find something sadly lacking: an awareness of
deep problems and a search for deep explanations.
I'll try to enlarge on this.
2 Deep science and shallow science
Looking back over the history of science we can distinguish three major types
- the collection of facts expressible in previously available language,
the extension of our thinking powers by the creation of new concepts,
taxonomies, symbolisms and inference-techniques, and
the construction of generative explanatory theories about underlying mechanisms,
a task which has much in common with engineering design.
The collection of facts (including laws and generalisations)
intrinsically interesting, and also important for the other two processes,
since facts determine what it is that our theories need to explain
and help to show up inadequacies in our descriptive and explanatory
and they may even be of great practical value.
But facts alone give us no new understanding, no new insight into
underlying mechanisms, no new ways of thinking about old
Are the authors of these papers merely concerned to collect facts?
Clearly not: they are also deeply concerned to learn the extent of
man's uniqueness in the animal world, to refute behaviourism,
and to replace anecdote with experimental rigour.
But what do they have to say to someone who doesn't care whether
humans are unique, who believes that behaviourism is either an
irrefutable collection of tautologies or a dead horse, and who
already is deeply impressed by the abilities of cats, dogs, chimps, and other animals,
but who constantly wonders:
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
This is the sort of question which
is at the heart of all science (and philosophy), namely:
`How is this possible?'
How is it possible for a chimp to interpret flat pictures as representing
three dimensional scenes involving agents with purposes (PW)?
How is it possible for a chimp to learn to fish for juice with a sponge on a string (SRB)?
How is it possible for a bee to find its way to a specific location (G)?
How is it possible for a chimp to pull a blanket with just the right
force to retrieve a ball?
How is it possible for a chimp to learn
that after being shown a videotape she is to select a photograph from
a box left by the experimenter before he departs, and then she is to place
the picture alongside the television set, and finally ring a bell to
recall the experimenter (PW, page 4)?
How can a chimp realise that tapping another's hand is an adequate method
of getting the latter to relinquish the straw through which he is sucking
juice (SRB figure 6e)?
How does the other chimp know that that is the
How can they learn to push buttons?
How can they remember where to
look for the effects?
How can they learn associations?
How can they use
How can they combine previously learnt actions into larger wholes
(SRB page 15)?
How can they use so-called iconic symbolism (SRB page 19)?
How can they form beliefs?
How can they react to unintended cues from
How can they form beliefs about the intentions
or beliefs of others (all three papers)?
How can they have likes or dislikes (PW page 11)?
Of course, all these, and myriad other questions suggested by the papers,
may be asked about human beings too!
But when the authors begin to broach such questions, for instance as
G does at several points, they hardly seem able to go beyond
anti-behaviourist incantations which re-iterate what has always
been obvious to anyone with common sense: that animals have experiences,
beliefs, hopes, fears, doubts, surprises, intentions, plans, and so on.
As if we already knew how to explain these things,
and the only problem was to collect more examples.
3 Am I being unfair?
One cannot do everything, least of all in a short
scientific paper, even a speculative one, like Griffin's. Surely a
scientist is entitled to choose an area of research and pursue it?
Surely it is unreasonable for me to criticise these authors for not
pursuing the questions which interest me?
Perhaps, but I suspect that it is not merely a difference of
interest that is at issue.
questions I have formulated, are still a long way from being answered,
one thing seems clear from
the few serious attempts which have been made to gain some
insight into these matters:
the abilities in question seem to depend on internal processes in which
symbols of some kind
are constructed, stored and manipulated:
they use inner languages.
For some first crude attempts at theorising about such internal
processes see Miller et. al (1960), and more recent work in
Artificial Intelligence reported in
Winston (1975, 1977),
Lindsay and Norman (1972).
What sorts of internal symbolisms are required? How are they used?
How are they acquired? Are very different kinds used
for different purposes? How are they stored? How did they evolve? -
these are all basically unanswered questions.
But if it is even remotely plausible that in order to
perceive, learn, find their way around some terrain, form
and execute intentions, etc.
animals must make use of internal symbolisms,
then surely one might expect discussions of
the ability of apes to use
push-button language, gesture, or whatever) to be related to
speculations about their
The essence of language is often thought to be its use in communication.
What I am saying is that there is a more fundamental class of uses -
for storing information and procedures, and for making inferences,
forming plans, guiding actions, etc.
In every way this is more basic: it evolves earlier, it develops earlier
in individuals, and it is a prerequisite for the overt use of
language for communication.
This inner symbolic competence is clearly quite profound even in relatively
unintelligent animals, to judge from the enormous difficulties
Artificial Intelligence workers have experienced in their efforts
to simulate apparently commonplace abilities.
(I am not talking about physiological processes.
Studying the physiology of a computer can tell you very little about
the programs which run on it, since these may be radically altered without
Could it not be the case that by theorising about such (mostly unconscious) inner
processes (going far beyond traditional mentalists in precision
and detail), we might be able to form a framework to guide
research into the overt linguistic abilities of apes, and
possibly other creatures?
And then we shall not be dependent for our scientific motivation
on a concern about the uniqueness of human beings, or semantic
quibbles about the essence of language!
Unless work on the behaviour of animals is placed in the context
of attempts to theorise about underlying mechanisms, it is
little more than ethological rubber-necking (often done very
effectively in TV documentaries).
4 On experimenting in the dark
In so far as claims are being made about controlled experiments,
we have a right to ask `How do the experiments
A scientist should not be satisfied with an experiment
using some complicated piece of apparatus whose behaviour he could
not explain. Yet all the experiments described in these papers
require the animals to deploy very complex cognitive skills:
perceptual skills, learning skills, problem-solving skills,
memory-skills. Without the use of these skills, the animals
would not be able to acquire or display the other skills which are
explicitly being studied: such as the ability to use symbols in
a co-operative situation, or the ability to think about somebody
else's predicament. Why are the researchers content to
study the latter skills without any theory of the mechanisms
underlying the skills which are part of their experimental
Without such understanding, the observed behaviour is subject to radical
ambiguities of interpretation.
How can we tell to what extent the experimentalists' descriptions are
I suspect that many experimenters
are as unaware of the need for explanations of the kinds requested above
as the child who feels no need for an
explanation of why unsupported apples move downwards.
For instance SRB (page 21) assumes that `deferred imitation' might
explain some of Washoe's behaviour, and PW (p 9) suggests that `physical
matching' might be an explanation of some of Sarah's problem-solving.
Of course I cannot now give explanations, and that is the main reason why
my criticism is so unfair. But I have a strong suspicion that in the
long run we shall all learn more if we spend a little less time
collecting new curiosities and a little more time pondering
the deeper questions.
The latter are harder and don't generate publications so easily:
but the questions are important and we need more good young scientists
to be trained to think about them. The best method I know of is to
explore attempts to design
systems which display the
abilities we are trying to understand. Later, when we have a
better idea of what the important theoretical problems are, we'll
need to supplement this kind of research with more empirical studies.
Compare Pylyshyn 1978.
Finally an ethical comment.
The discoveries reported in the papers by SRB and PW show that
at least some apes have a profound potential which they cannot
realise without human intervention.
(It is not clear how far the use of computerised equipment is
This is no different from the situation with humans:
without the benefit of an elaborate culture a human child will not
develop the ability to talk, to play or enjoy music, to solve mathematical
problems, to puzzle about the workings of the human mind.
It is now widely accepted that people have a
to the kind of education and social opportunities which will
enable them to realise their potential - not all their potential of course,
for instance not the potential to become vicious, which
possibly lurks in all of us.
Whether they have the right or not, it is clear that for the
vast majority of human children the opportunities for development
just are not available - and often the right is not recognised.
But insofar as they have the right, it would seem that similar
reasons exist for ascribing such a right to other animals.
Where this argument ends I cannot tell, but at least it should be
borne in mind by all who are interested in finding out
just how much apes can be helped to become human.
G.A. Miller and E. Galanter and K.H. Pribram,
Plans and the Structure of Behaviour,
A computational model of skill acquisition,
P.H. Winston (editor).
The psychology of computer vision.
McGraw-Hill, New York
P. H. Winston.
M. A. Boden,
Artificial Intelligence and Natural Man,
Lindsay and Norman (1972).
1978. Computational Models and Empirical Constraints,
Behavioral and Brain Sciences
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On 13 Dec 2007, 22:58.