Minds and Language

The possibilities and manifestations of mind and consciousness in animals were topics of active speculation in the early post-Darwinian period of comparative psychology. The Animal Mind by Margaret Flow Washburn, published in four editions from 1908 to 1936, was a popular and widely used textbook in comparative psychology. But the increasing influence of behaviorism and the warnings of Morgan's canon relegated mind, consciousness, and similar attributes to the dustbin of comparative psychology.

In 1966 Gardner and Gardner (1971) began tutoring a young chimpanzee, Washoe, in American Sign Language. The project was far more successful than earlier attempts to teach chimpanzees a spoken language.

In the more than 35 years since the original Washoe study, several other ape language projects have been reported, some with manual signing, others in which the ape directed manual responses toward abstract symbols (Rum-baugh & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1994).

In 1993, Savage-Rumbaugh described a remarkable experiment with the bonobo Kanzi showing that he could respond appropriately to a large number of spoken English sentences that he had not previously heard. Kanzi's ability to understand novel spoken sentences is the most impressive evidence to date that apes' language capabilities can closely approximate those of humans who are first acquiring language.

A second important issue in recent comparative psychology is whether apes and possibly monkeys have a theory of mind. Having a theory of mind implies an ability to understand the intentions, mental states, personalities, and perceptions of other animals (Whiten & Byrne, 1997). Tactical deception based on deliberately or knowingly presenting incorrect, deceptive information to another animal is one example of using a theory of mind. Whiten and Byrne (1997) presented evidence of tactical deception in nonhuman primates.

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