Talking apes…

What both fascinates and disappoints me is the filmmakers’ obsession with incorporating human speech in non-human species. First, as wonderful as human communication is, it is not the best you can imagine. Language can take a horde of different forms and speech using sound waves modulated by a sophisticated vocal apparatus is something unique, but certainly not the only way to express complex interactions. Non-verbal communication, especially by signing and digital means, are equally deep and complex so I don’t get it when filmmakers want to make everyone as humanlike as possible when their intelligence is enhanced. I understand the limits of a storyline, but let’s be more science than fiction.

So about The Planet of the Apes

There is a reason why other apes don’t speak like humans, and it is not just the ephemeral ‘intelligence’. There are many factors that influenced the evolution of speech in humans and one retrovirus cannot magically get them to work overnight to create super-mutants.

First, great apes do communicate vocally, but in different ways and lack the ability to modulate sounds via their vocal folds in the way humans do. They also lack the ability to control the diaphragm the way we do to ensure airflow modulation in synchrony with exhalation and, most importantly, other apes cannot control mouth and tongue movements with the same precision we do. This makes the production of complicated speech sounds with fast transitions from closed to open sounds produced in a variety of manners and places in the oral cavity practically impossible. But not vocalisations of different types and tonalities. This is not a problem at all. However, since chimpanzees and other great apes have far more precision in the movements of their limbs, gestures are a far more suitable form of communication and this has been shown by teaching some of them sign language.

Okay, so is it possible to have a gene mutation that improves the above anatomical details? In theory, yes, but in fact, in the case of humans, this took thousands of years of evolution so I am sceptical. But most importantly, the anatomy is an important ingredient, but is it absolutely necessary to learn a sophisticated language? Of course not! We may well imagine somebody learning a language in written form only. Also, sign language does not require speaking. So what is the key to developing a human-like language?

Well, reasoning. Advanced reasoning skills that go beyond vocabulary learning or sound repetition. Scientists have already shown that apes have great memory skills and can associate objects to meanings, use keyboards to communicate with humans and perform simple and even some more complicated tasks. What they typically lack is the ability to make associations between words and structures without direct reference to a particular object or situation (indexicality). As Terrence Deacon nicely put it in his seminal book “The Symbolic Species“, the key to understanding what human speech is about is symbolism, or ‘symbolic representation’. According to Deacon, communication based on symbols is indispensable for higher-order thinking, which is the foundation of our advanced way of representing the world and our ability to create novel meanings, structures and references beyond what we actually experience. Our linguistic creativity depends on a complex thought mechanism and at the same time feeds our thinking about the surrounding world and our experiences. If we want to know what underlies the uniqueness of human language, “[i]t is not just the origins of our biological species that we seek to discover, but the origin of our novel form of mind” (Deacon 1997, p. 23).

One might say that language skills require higher intelligence, but what is intelligence? It is probably one of the most abused words nowadays. It is not entirely clear what we refer to when we speak of it. Besides, other apes are highly intelligent creatures and primatologists have been able to show that e.g. bonobos are able to understand human speech beyond the commands they were taught and will also respond to them. In lexigram experiments based on associating symbols with objects, chimpanzees were shown to be learning symbolic references beyond indexical association (of a word to an object present in the room). But probably the most impressive example of non-human language learning was demostrated by Kanzi, a bonobo based in the U.S. As a young chimp, he learned to communicate practically by accident, by merely observing the interactions of his foster mother with the experimenters. It can be said that Kanzi learned symbolic communication with the use of lexigrams spontaneously, like a human child does. What’s more, he quickly outperformed adult chimps that were taught at the time and with the passing years he learned to understand a lot of spoken English, analyse complex grammatical structures and respond to them accordingly depending on the semantic and pragmatic meaning.

In this case, the key to understanding the fast acquisition of English and symbolic references is probably the non-explicit training the chimp got at a very early age. Let’s keep in mind that humans learn their mother tongue(s) wothout instruction and by simple immersion into the speaking world. Exposure to the surrounding sounds, tones, syllables, words, and, finally, sentences is crucial for learning. And we all know too well how much more difficult it gets to learn a language when all our linguistic structures and habits are already in place. In adolescence, we are moderately disadvantaged and we find it harder still after reaching adulthood. Also, the foreign languages we learn are typically taught to us via specific instruction with grammatical rules, showing word to meaning associations, etc. The innocent newborn learns no such thing and by the age of 6 or 7 becomes quite a proficient member of a given speech community (by the laws of the so-called critical period hypothesis of which I will talk in a post to come). This brings us back to the ‘intelligence’ question…

The general IQ of a person does not really matter in first language acquisition. Every child is perfectly capable of learning their mother tongue. If the child is mute, they will learn a sign language which is no less sophisticated than spoken languages… And the same intelligent people who already learned their mother tongue may have problems with learning foreign languages later in life regardless of their math skills or capacity to play the piano (or any other conventional marker of ‘intelligence’). As a result, we need not only higher intelligence (whatever that means) to develop language, we also need a very specific innate capacity to experience language and ‘get’ the grammar based on the input we get. This, in turn, requires specialised brain mechanisms and cognitive abilities of which we still know very little. Thinking that some kind of a virus can simultaneously produce such a great variety of changes, from anatomical differences to higher order mental skills, is a bit too far-fetched for my taste… Let’s remember that apart from the sophisticated thinking and vocal apparatus differences other apes also have quite different brain structures than humans that cannot be changed overnight. So why and how are those apes in The Planet of the Apes talking?

What I really liked about The Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the scientific dimension and the slow evolution of the different skills Ceasar possessed. Yes, there was a virus and yes, it made the ape more intelligent in many aspects. This actually happened in the womb so the ape was already born a mutant, which makes it attractive from the scientific point of view. Then we gradually learn about what he can do. He grows up as a half-chimp half-human child, with constant interactions with his human companion, exposed to English and trained in many cognitive tasks. This may also have given him more empathy. He learned how to sign, which is perfectly feasible. And when he finally speaks, it seems to be such an achievement! But of course, he does not speak in long sentences. I can believe a chimp can say “No!” in some circumstances.

Why then make it more fiction than science in the other two parts of the movie? Suddenly, we have a whole community of different types of apes (who would never interact in such ways in our world) who sign and sometimes speak when they’re angry or excited, or without any specific pattern. Some of them never speak. They also seem to have abandoned the normal ape communication patterns. Maybe this is part of the virus-induced evolution… The signing part is okay, the speaking part not so much. First, it is not credible from the point of view of an overnight mutation (maybe passed on to the next generation). Second, it is absolutely unnecessary. True, it impressed the humans in the movie, but why do the apes have to speak? Is it necessary to show their supremacy over humans? If they are unable to speak (with sounds), they are somehow not intelligent enough? This is a common misconception. Besides, now they speak more words, they even produce sentences.

And so we get to part three… The War for the Planet of the Apes. Here, a lot more apes speak, Ceasar now speaks so fluently I am wondering if he was watching Netflix the whole time or listened to some lectures online. It seems like he gets more intelligent than superintelligent every month or so. Other apes learn to speak from whom? The soldiers that only speak when shooting them? And there is this ‘Bad Ape’ character who is very funny, but quite surprisingly speaks like an average American male. A bit strange… Plus the whole species inherits a lot of human drawbacks, like being merciful, empathetic and making all the wrong choices. Here I don’t know if the purpose of the film is to have apes replace humans, the only change being the physical aspect (and living in the woods) or to have them become superior to humans (in which case mimicking humans is probably not the desired move). Apes also live like humans… suddenly they have ‘normal’ families with one mate (not at all the case in chimpanzee communities… I also cannot see the typical bonobo promiscuity) and they care for each other like humans. I don’t know if higher intelligence necessarily leads to such societal differences… But worse still, there comes another virus (or mutation of the first one), which makes humans brute and mute. Again the abominable association of being unable to speak (vocally) with intelligence — you can’t speak, you’re a beast (I wonder what the deaf and hard-of-hearing community has to say about that…). And of course the effect is immediate — you become a sub-intelligent mute overnight. Years of evolution go to waste. I could not believe my own eyes…

So what can I say: as almost in all cases where language is involved, filmmakers did a really crappy job. They oversimplified one of the most intricate signatures of our existence. They failed to at least try to understand it or consult people who do. Although the title of the series is Planet of the Apes, it is all about human supremacy. The whole plot beyond the great potential of the first part is anthropocentric and simplistic, unfounded, and repetitive (how many films with mysterious viruses that do incredibly bad things to humans have we seen already?). I think it is a shame that the ape evolution part was not thought through and shown in more detail. I would have left Ceasar as the only speaking ape and got the rest to communicate non-verbally. With time, I would have envisaged that the apes evolve their own language, gradually, and not English! Why do they need it after all? The human anti-evolution might also be explained differently, or taken slowly to be more feasible. The idea of losing the ability to learn languages and communicate verbally is quite interesting, but would definitely require better screenwriters. It is a real shame given the amount of work put into the visual details of these movies!

At the end, I’d like to point to some other opinions on these crazy plot turns in the Planet of the Apes that are worth reading:

The verge – the simian virus

The Slate – opinion of a linguist

Livescience – Bekoff on apes speaking

And something I only partially agree with:

The Guardian – on the scientific plausibility of the films