Monkeys Could Talk, but They Don’t Have the Brains for It

Dec 11, 2016

By Carl Zimmer

Primates are unquestionably clever: Monkeys can learn how to use money, and chimpanzees have a knack for game theory. But no one has ever taught a nonhuman primate to say “hello.”

Scientists have long been intrigued by the failure of primates to talk like us. Understanding the reasons may offer clues to how our own ancestors evolved full-blown speech, one of our most powerful adaptations.

On Friday, a team of researchers reported that monkeys have a vocal tract capable of human speech. They argue that other primates can’t talk because they lack the right wiring in their brains.


Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.

10 comments on “Monkeys Could Talk, but They Don’t Have the Brains for It

  • Ironically “bird-brained” talking birds like parrots have learned how to mimic human speech without vocal chords, while “clever” big-brained chimps have vocal chords capable of human speech but haven’t learned how to mimic it.



    Report abuse

  • I was always taught that the other primates lacked the musculature to create the myriad sounds that are involved in human speech. I also read years ago about a transposon called the mariner that humans have in very high copy number which seems to endow us with not just the ability to speak, but the NEED.

    I guess this bit of research “says” that primates have the vocal tract to produce speech… So, perhaps this phenomena is deeper than the mere ability and resides in our need to communicate with language.

    i recall an anecdote about an orphanage for the deaf in Nicaragua where people would simply leave their deaf infant. It was maintained, ruled, run by deaf people. They had created their very own form of sign language, replete with syntax, tense, and sophisticated grammar. Go here:
    http://www.news-medical.net/news/2004/09/18/4883.aspx
    for a taste.



    Report abuse

  • I guess this bit of research “says” that primates have the vocal tract to produce speech… So, perhaps this phenomena is deeper than the mere ability and resides in our need to communicate with language.

    Crookedshoes. I doubt if the human species, unique among animals, uses language in speech, and over the last 5,000 years developed language in writing, because of any “need.” Clearly our brains evolved the ability to acquire and use language under most social conditions. Once the linguistic behavior dependent on unique brain capacity started to emerge, it became universal and developed culturally into more and more sophisticated forms. Anthropoid apes, monkeys, and to a lesser extent “talking birds” remain animals without linguistic awareness in spite of behavioral demonstrations of impressive cognitive power.



    Report abuse

  • crookedshoes #5
    Dec 13, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    I was always taught that the other primates lacked the musculature to create the myriad sounds that are involved in human speech. I also read years ago about a transposon called the mariner that humans have in very high copy number which seems to endow us with not just the ability to speak, but the NEED.

    Perhaps the difference in humans is related to this:-

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38226810

    Humans may in part owe their big brains to a DNA “typo” in their genetic code, research suggests.

    The mutation was also present in our evolutionary “cousins” – the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

    However, it is not found in humans’ closest living relatives, the chimpanzees.

    As early humans evolved, they developed larger and more complex brains, which can process and store a lot of information.

    Last year, scientists pinpointed a human gene that they think was behind the expansion of a key brain region known as the neocortex.

    They believe the gene arose about five or six million years ago, after the human line had split off from chimpanzees.

    Now, researchers have found a tiny DNA change – a point mutation – that appears to have changed the function of the gene, sparking the process of expansion of the neocortex.

    It may have paved the way for the brain’s expansion by dramatically boosting the number of brain cells found in this region.

    Dr Wieland Huttner of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, led the research.

    “A point mutation in a human-specific gene gave it a function that allows expansion of the relevant stem cells that make a brain big,” he told BBC News.

    “This one, as it is fixed in the human genome – so all living humans have the gene – apparently gave a tremendous selection advantage, and that’s why we believe it spread in the human population.”

    Between two and six million years ago, the ancestors of modern humans began to walk upright and use simple tools.

    During this extended period of time, their brain size started to increase. They began to spread around the world, encountering different environments.

    From about 800,000 years ago, their brain size increased further, helping them to survive in a changing world.

    Still, many questions remain about how early humans evolved larger brains.

    It is likely that the gene is one of many genetic changes that gave humans their unique intelligence and thinking ability.

    The research is published in the journal, Science Advances.



    Report abuse

  • For those interested this is the key paper that recently identified our possible greatest cognitive distinction from all other animals. This is the event that happened 2.5mya (if I recall correctly) affecting amongt other things GABA transport mechanisms in the PFC.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4141622/

    What I found most fascinating when I reported this a couple of years ago was how this cognitive supercharging may well have opened the door to a neural overshoot resulting in conditions like schizophrenia. Whilst there are many animal correlates for most human mental diseases, there are none for these psychotic ones.

    Darn! I don’t think it is the one, though it is associated and interesting. Let me try again.



    Report abuse

  • There is some interesting work on Orangutan language here.:-

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38907681

    Scientists who spent years listening to the communication calls of one of our closest ape relatives say their eavesdropping has shed light on the origin of human language.
    Dr Adriano Reis e Lameira from Durham University recorded and analysed almost 5,000 orangutan “kiss squeaks”.

    He found that the animals combined these purse-lipped, “consonant-like” calls to convey different messages.

    This could be a glimpse of how our ancestors formed the earliest words.

    The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

    “Human language is extraordinarily advanced and complex – we can pretty much transmit any information we want into sound,” said Dr Reis e Lameira.

    “So we tend to think that maybe words evolved from some rudimentary precursor to transmit more complex messages.

    “We were basically using the orangutan vocal behaviour as a time machine – back to a time when our ancestors were using what would become [those precursors] of consonants and vowels.”

    The team studied kiss squeaks in particular because, like many consonants – the /t/, /p/, /k/ sounds – they depend on the action of the lips, tongue and jaw rather than the voice.

    “Kiss squeaks do not involve vocal fold action, so they’re acoustically and articulatory consonant-like,” explained Dr Reis e Lameira.

    In comparison to research into vowel-like primate calls, the scientists explained, the study of consonants in the evolution of language has been more difficult. But as Prof Serge Wich from Liverpool John Moores University, a lead author in the study, said, they are crucial “building blocks” in the evolution of language.

    “Most human languages have a lot more consonants than vowels,” said Prof Wich. “And if we have more building blocks, we have more combinations.”

    The scientists recorded and analysed 4,486 kiss-squeaks collected from 48 animals in four wild populations.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.