Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has made a career of studying bonobo apes. She would have us believe that there is no barrier between bonobos and humans. Her research raises the question of who we are as humans, and she would respond that we are just another animal. There are so many difficulties with this viewpoint that it is hard to know where to start. The most fundamental scientific problem is that there is a difference between communication and language.
Savage-Rumbaugh’s research is the main story in the July/August 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine. She assumes that environment is not a factor in what distinguishes apes from humans, and she has lived with the bonobos in her research. A tool she uses in studying the bonobos is a “lexigram keyboard” with pictorial symbols corresponding to English words. One particular bonobo named Kanzi has used it to communicate with her. This ape could use some 660 English sentences functioning at a level higher than a two-and-a-half-year-old human child.
The difference between communication and language is an old issue. Aristotle wrote that animals could exchange information, but only humans could articulate what was just and unjust. The famous philosopher Rene’ Descartes in the 1600s, wrote that God had gifted human beings with souls, and, along with souls, language and consciousness. On this website and in our printed materials, we have talked about God’s design in animals that allows elaborate communication. Bees communicate by dancing information to other bees. Birds make sounds that carry meanings and warnings to other birds. The ultrasonic emissions of whales are elaborate communication tools.
Savage-Rumbaugh has shown that bonobos have a flexible capacity to communicate. However, she falls into the old trap of anthropomorphizing animal behavior – reading human interpretations into something an animal does. Statements such as, “She would look at me with a pleading expression on her face” is ascribing human interpretations to the ape’s facial expressions. The symbols on the keyboard are human symbols, and pigeons can learn to peck a particular symbol to get a desired result.
The Smithsonian article quotes one researcher as saying, “Work with Kanzi has always lived somewhere between rigorous science and social closeness and family life.” The difference between communication and language is a topic of hot debate. If you look up the word “language” you will see a significant variation in how different people define it. Humans have language that involves the meaning of symbols, the standards by which we measure behavior, and the values accepted by one’s peers.
The Bible deals with language, and God’s Spirit is involved with our language. When researchers have tried to humanize a chimpanzee by bringing it into their home, they do so with communication, but language is never a part of the process. Trying to turn an animal into a human being has disastrous results. We are created in the image of God, and language is a part of that image.
— John N. Clayton © 2020