Thursday, April 27, 2006

Monkeys are like people trapped in fly-bodies

I see the Globe and Mail has reprinted the worse-than-worst AP article about birds 'learning grammar' verbatim.

I look forward to seeing Mark's interlinear interpretation, since I can't make head nor tail of it as written. I really like the opinion attributed to Mark Hauser at the end, though, apparently offered in partial explanation of why the birds did better than his tamarins:

"Monkeys may be trapped like Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, a man metamorphosed into a bug and unable to communicate with the outside world, Mr. Hauser suggested."


Hee hee.


Blogger Bridget said...

Ha! Hauser gave the keynote at our undergrad colloquium last weekend and used that exact metaphor.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's my email to NATURE:

Dear editor,

In the article titled "Language: Startling Starlings" published in your journal (, it was argued that Starlings were able to distinguish between recursive and non-recursive grammars.

The conclusion was that Starlings may possess a uniquely human trait, that of recognition of recursion.

I would like to point out that this latter conclusion is incorrect.

The sequences Starlings had to respond to were of the sort AABB or AAABBB, for instance. This means that rather than internalizing the concept of recursion, all they had to do was to count. If two B's were preceded by two A's, then they pressed a bar and were rewarded. But even that could be argued against. The birds could just detect a change in pattern, say a change from A to B. If they detected it an adequate amount of times when it was (accidentally) "recursive" (note that there were 10,000 - 50,000 trials), this would become statistically significant, enabling to falsely argue that they succeeded in recognizing recursion.

The conclusion must be that Starlings do not possess anything similar to the core property of human language (recursion). The above comments are also valid to studies of Tamarins (by Hauser). In fact, experiments involving self-embedding (AB)^n do not show anything about recursion because of this complication. This should have been noted by your journal reviewers to avoid misleading the readers regarding the claims made in the article.


Oren Sadeh-Leicht
Institute of Linguistics OTS
Utrecht University
The Netherlands

3:12 AM  

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