January 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

Monkey See, Monkey No Comprendo

In 19th century mythology, a million monkeys might type the works of Shakespeare by chance, given millions of years.  But monkeys would make lousy computer programmers, because they cannot understand the “if-then” construction.  Comparison studies on humans and monkeys showed that while the monkeys could be trained to recognize when one word is followed by another, they cannot get the rules of recursive grammar into their heads.  Trainers tried to get them to follow a simple rule, such as one to three words spoken by a male trainer are followed by the same pattern of words spoken by a female trainer.  Since human volunteers had no such difficulty, even when previously unfamiliar with the rule, the scientists deduced that recursive logic is a uniquely human trait.  New Scientist discusses the interpretation of David Premack, a renowned primate language expert:

Mastery of the underlying rule of recursion is the key to human flexibility, Premack believes, allowing humans to think in the abstract, use metaphors and comprehend concepts such as time.  It probably arose as the brain evolved into a more complex organ, but is not located in a single brain region.

The study by Hauser and Fitch was published in last week’s Science,1 along with commentary by Premack.2
    In their report, MSNBC News tantalized with “How humans got the gift of gab,” but failed to satisfy: “Language is at the very core of what makes us human, though how we evolved this ability has provoked intense debate.”  Somehow, it evolved (they don’t quite know how), but whatever happened, it made all the difference:

Whatever it is about the brain that allows such linguistic flexibility may also be key to the human imagination, according to Premack.  Unlike other animals, which specialize in various skills, humans are supremely adaptable, able to learn new tasks and develop new technologies.  “Human intelligence and evolution are the only flexible processes on Earth capable of producing endless solutions to the problems confronted by living creatures,” Premack writes.


1Fitch and Hauser, “Computational Constraints on Syntactic Processing in a Nonhuman Primate,” Science 01/16/2003, 10.1126/science.1089401.
2David Premack, “Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence?” Science 01/16/2003, 10.1126/science.1093993.

That line makes Premack winner of Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week.  The BBC News is runner-up with its very misleading headline, “Monkeys ‘grasp basic grammar’,” which the body of the article debunks.  But hold the presses!  Should we give it instead to National Geographic News for this line attributed to Premack?  “Evolution, being endlessly clever, might produce words that don’t require teaching, but until it does, it is not clear how any species other than humans could evolve language.”
    The whole experiment is pretty suspect.  How can a trainer know what a monkey is thinking just by watching bodily reactions, when their little pea-brains are in a constant state of flux, switching attention to whatever provides instant gratification?  The distance between their comprehension and that of speaking human is enormous, with no intermediates.  Yet article after article just assumes that mindless processes of evolution bridged this gap somehow.
    Don’t you just get sick of it?  The evolutionists blow smoke rings around readers’ necks that strangle by suggestion.  There’s nothing of substance here to choke off debate, but suckers are so awestruck by the wizards that they pass out as if slain in the spirit of Charlie.  It’s all a trick.
    Evolution is an idol, savvy?  Having no eyes, it sees not, and having no ears, it hears not.  Evolution has no power to evolve language or any complex system.  It is not, standing alongside human intelligence, “a flexible process that can produce endless solutions to problems.”  This is playing word games; it’s an unmitigated myth based on association and bluffing.  Natural selection is the opposite of intelligence.  It is the opposite of problem-solving.  It is the opposite of flexibility.  It says “survive or perish” but not “evolve or perish”, because it contains no mechanism for producing beneficial variation.  And you want beneficial variation to come from mutations – mistakes?  Get a life.
    Evolutionists never explain how natural selection could do such a thing as evolving recursive language skill; they merely claim that it did do it.  If you can’t accept it, well obviously, you just don’t have the faith, brother.  Don’t put your faith in an idol that is toppling (10/14/2003).

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