Saturday, January 20, 2007

`Did anyone look to see who Stephen E Jones was before accepting his observations? ... we can put Mr Jones' observations in the round file'

I was Googling the other day and I found this example of the Genetic Fallacy,

[Left: Kanzi the `talking' bonobo with Sue Savage Rumbaugh, his trainer, BBC]

i.e. "a line of `reasoning' in which a perceived defect in the origin of a claim or thing is taken to be evidence that discredits the claim or thing itself" (The Nizkor Project).

It was in a thread "Science Hoax: Simian Sign-Language - Greatest Science Hoax Ever?" on the "James [The Amazing] Randi Educational Foundation" forum which ostensibly is "a place to discuss skepticism, critical thinking, the paranormal and science in a friendly but lively way."

The poster is by one who calls herself skeptigirl,but it seems she is actually truebelieverinskepticsmsocalledgirl because she is, as is often (if not always) the case of those who claim to be "skeptics", not "skeptical about such doctrines of the rationalist faith as atheism, materialism, and Darwinian evolution":

"Since the publication of Darwin on Trial, I have taken to reading a newsletter called BASIS, which is published by an organization calling itself the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics, mainly because it often has something unfavorable to say about me. As you can imagine, the Bay Area Skeptics do not encourage people to be skeptical about such doctrines of the rationalist faith as atheism, materialism, and Darwinian evolution." (Johnson, P.E., "Evolution and Theistic Naturalism," 1992 Founder's Lectures, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, February 17, 1992)

On this thread, as its name suggests, they were debating whether animals can talk. Coincidentally (since my Google search was nothing to do with my recent post about that topic), a member of that forum had posted on 30 September 2006 a link to a March 2000 post of mine in the same debate about "Parrot communication" that I mentioned the other day.

That 2000 debate had moved on to the topic of Kanzi, the claimed talking bonobo chimpanzee and I quoted anonymously a member of a private list I was then on who had actually been to the lab of Kanzi's trainer, Sue Savage Rumbaugh, and had witnessed first-hand the Clever Hans effect in action with Kanzi's sister Panbonisha [sic] pushing buttons and "the trainers ... offer[ing] extensive commentary and interpretation" with the result that "All of the alleged communication consisted of the ape pushing a button, and the trainers giving elaborate exegesis thereupon":

Language Log ... March 02, 2004 [...]

I found something on the web that's relevant to this, something that you may not have seen. It concerns an inside report about Kanzi, the allegedly language-competent bonobo.

Steve Jones, of Perth (Western Australia), posted this message in an archive of discussion about evolution on the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization devoted to "science in a Christian perspective", in which he says that a friend of his on another list (a closed list, apparently, so he felt he should not give the friend's name) had posted the following about Kanzi. Keep in mind while you read the quote below that the experiments with Kanzi are widely regarded as perhaps the most successful experiments on communication ever done with any animal.

I am amused by the Ape Story, mostly because I have met Kanzi! My Philosophy of Mind professor ... was a thorough naturalist, and thought it his responsibility to let us all know about the mental capabilities of our nearest relatives. So, we took a field trip to Rumbaugh's laboratory to see Kanzi, the famed bonobo, and his sister Panbonisha.

I was distinctly unimpressed. My class had been told about Kanzi's ability to understand complex commands, but he refused to perform or obey when we were present. The Rumbaughs had a huge electronic board with hundreds of symbols on it; whenever a symbol was pushed, the board would electronically pronounce the word associated with the symbol. This is how the bonobos are supposedly able to communicate as well as a three-year-old human. Again, Kanzi refused to push any of the symbols; his sister Panbonisha did push some of the symbols repeatedly, but it was difficult to tell if she was really communicating or just having fun making noise. For example, Panbonisha pushed a button repeatedly that said, "Chase." Of course, the trainers were happy to offer extensive commentary and interpretation: "See, she's trying to say that you [one of the humans] should chase him [another human]. She loves the game of chase." All of the alleged communication consisted of the ape pushing a button, and the trainers giving elaborate exegesis thereupon.

My personal opinion is that the Rumbaughs are possibly guilty of a little wishful thinking. And as for the assertion that Kanzi has the language abilities of a 3-year-old, I could read the newspaper at 3. Kanzi's nowhere close.

Comment from me would be almost superfluous. [...]

First, two quotes by the MIT linguist Steven Pinker, a devout Darwinist and atheist who would have no reason to debunk claims to have taught apes human language if it were true, says that their claims are "not much more scientific" than Pinker's "great-aunt Bella [who] insisted ... that her Siamese cat Rusty understood English":

"Beginning in the late 1960s, several famous projects claimed to have taught language to baby chimpanzees with the help of more user friendly media. ... Sarah learned to string magnetized plastic shapes on a board. Lana and Kanzi learned to press buttons with symbols on a large computer console or point to them on a portable tablet. Washoe and Koko (a gorilla) were said to have acquired American Sign Language. According to their trainers, these apes learned hundreds of words, strung them together in meaningful sentences, and coined new phrases, like water bird for a swan and cookie rock for a stale Danish. `Language is no longer the exclusive domain of man,' said Koko's trainer, Francine (Penny) Patterson. These claims quickly captured the public's imagination and were played up in popular science books and magazines and television programs .... Many scientists have also been captivated, seeing the projects as a healthy deflation of our species' arrogant chauvinism. I have seen popular-science columns that list the acquisition of language by chimpanzees as one of the major scientific discoveries of the century. ...People who spend a lot of time with animals are prone to developing indulgent attitudes about their powers of communication. My great-aunt Bella insisted in all sincerity that her Siamese cat Rusty understood English. Many of the claims of the ape trainers were not much more scientific. Most of the trainers were schooled in the behaviorist tradition of B.F. Skinner and are ignorant of the study of language; they latched on to the most tenuous resemblance between chimp and child and proclaimed that their abilities are fundamentally the same. The more enthusiastic trainers went over the heads of scientists and made their engaging case directly to the public on the Tonight Show ... Patterson in particular has found ways to excuse Koko's performance on the grounds that the gorilla is fond of puns, jokes, metaphors, and mischievous lies. Generally the stronger the claims about the animal's abilities, the skimpier the data made available to the scientific community for evaluation. Most of the trainers have refused all requests to share their raw data, and Washoe's trainers, Beatrice and Alan Gardner, threatened to sue another researcher because he used frames of one of their films (the only raw data available to him) in a critical scientific article. ...To begin with, the apes did not `learn American Sign Language.' This preposterous claim is based on the myth that ASL is a crude system of pantomimes and gestures rather than a full language with complex phonology, morphology, and syntax. In fact the apes had not learned any true ASL, signs. ...To arrive at their vocabulary counts in the hundreds, the investigators would also `translate' the chimps' pointing as a sign for you, their hugging as a sign for hug, their picking, tickling, and kissing as signs for pick, tickle, and kiss. Often the same movement would be credited to the chimps as different `words,' depending on what the observers thought the appropriate word would be in the context. In the experiments in which the chimps interacted with a computer console, the key that the chimp had to press to initialize the computer was translated as the word please. Petitto estimates that with more standard criteria the true vocabulary count would be closer to 25 than 125. ...The chimp's abilities at anything one would want to call grammar were next to nil. Signs were not coordinated into the well-defined motion contours of ASL and were not inflected for aspect, agreement, and so on-a striking omission, since inflection is the primary means in ASL, of conveying who did what to whom and many other kinds of information. ...Even putting aside vocabulary, phonology, morphology, and syntax, what impresses one the most about chimpanzee signing is that fundamentally, deep down, chimps just don't `get it.' They know that the trainers like them to sign and that signing often gets them what they want, but they never seem to feel in their bones what language is and how to use it. They do not take turns in conversation but instead blithely sign simultaneously with their partner, frequently off to the side or under a table rather than in the standardized signing space in front of the body. ...The chimps seldom sign spontaneously; they have to be molded, drilled, and coerced. Many of their `sentences,' especially the ones showing systematic ordering, are direct imitations of what the trainer has just signed, or minor variants of a small number of formulas that they have been trained on thousands of times. They do not even clearly get the idea that a particular sign might refer to a kind of object. ... Also, the chimps rarely make statements that comment on interesting objects or actions; virtually all their signs are demands for something they want, usually food or tickling." (Pinker, S., "The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind," [1994], Penguin: London, Reprinted, 2000 pp.367-373. Emphasis original).

On Kanzi specifically, Pinker concludes, "Kanzi's language abilities, if one is being charitable, are above those of his common cousins by a just-noticeable difference, but no more":

"Within the field of psychology, most of the ambitious claims about chimpanzee language are a thing of the past. Nim's trainer Herbert Terrace, as mentioned, turned from enthusiast to whistle-blower. David Premack, Sarah's trainer, does not claim that what she acquired is comparable to human language; he uses the symbol system as a tool to do chimpanzee cognitive psychology. The Gardners and Patterson have distanced themselves from the community of scientific discourse for over a decade. Only one team is currently making claims about language. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Duane Rumbaugh concede that the chimps they trained at the computer console did not learn much. But they are now claiming that a different variety of chimpanzee does much better. Chimpanzees come from some half a dozen mutually isolated `islands' of forest in the west African continent, and the groups have diverged over the past million years to the point where some of the groups are sometimes classified as belonging to different species. Most of the trained chimps were `common chimps'; Kanzi is a `pygmy chimp' or `bonobo,' and he learned to bang on visual symbols on a portable tablet. Kanzi, says Savage-Rumbaugh, does substantially better at learning symbols (and at understanding spoken language) than common chimps. Why he would be expected to do so much better than members of his sibling species is not clear; contrary to some reports in the press, pygmy chimps are no more closely related to humans than common chimps are. Kanzi is said to have learned his graphic symbols without having been laboriously trained on them-but he was at his mother's side watching while she was laboriously trained on them (unsuccessfully). He is said to use the symbols for purposes other than requesting-but at best only four percent of the time. He is said to use three-symbol `sentences'-but they are really fixed formulas with no internal structure and are not even three symbols long. The so-called sentences are all chains like the symbol for chase followed by the symbol for hide followed by a point to the person Kanzi wants to do the chasing and hiding. Kanzi's language abilities, if one is being charitable, are above those of his common cousins by a just-noticeable difference, but no more." (Pinker, Ibid, pp.373-374. Emphasis original)

Now, here is skeptigirl's (so-called) belated response of 13th January 2007:

James Randi Educational Foundation [...] Science Hoax: Simian Sign-Language - Greatest Science Hoax Ever? [...]

13th January 2007, 11:05 PM #165


Here's my favorite:

Originally Posted by GreedyAlgorithm

...This comes up fairly often on the Language Log. Here's one example on animal communication: Monkeys.

Going to the link we find:

My personal opinion is that the Rumbaughs are possibly guilty of a little wishful thinking. And as for the assertion that Kanzi has the language abilities of a 3-year-old, I could read the newspaper at 3. Kanzi's nowhere close.

I've said before and I'll say it again (what I tell you three times is true): I do not believe that there has ever been an example anywhere of a non-human expressing an opinion, or asking a question. Not ever. It would be wonderful if animals communicated propositionally -- i.e., could say things about the world, as opposed to just signalling a direct emotional state or need. But they just don't....

Sounds convincing enough. A personal experience which suggests the Kanzi claims are similar to the Koko claims.

Did anyone look to see who Stephen E Jones was before accepting his observations and conclusions? Always a good thing to do.

Stephen E. Jones' Home Page


Welcome to my home page! My name is Stephen E. (Steve) Jones. I am in my early sixties, married with two adult children, an evangelical Christian and a member of Warwick Church of Christ (in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia).

In 2004 I completed a biology degree. For over a decade (1994-2005), I was debating creation, evolution and intelligent design on the Internet, the last four years (2001-2005) being on my now-terminated group CreationEvolutionDesign.

I am now posting to my blog CreationEvolutionDesign and am writing a book, "Problems of Evolution."

I think we can put Mr Jones' observations in the round file. [...]

So according to skeptigirl (so-called), no matter what I posted (and in this case I was in agreement with her), and that I "completed a biology degree, it counts for nothing, because I am "an evangelical Christian"! That is is sufficient `reason' for her and her fellow `skeptics' (since no member of that forum saw anything wrong in this bigotry , i.e. "A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of opinions, lifestyles, or identities differing from his or her own") to put all my "observations in the round file" (i.e. wastepaper bin)!

Well, if Christianity is true (which it is) such `skeptics' will only have themselves to blame (eternally - Mt 25:46; 2Th 1:9) for their refusal to hear the King's gracious message of reconciliation to them, through us, His ambassadors (2 Cor 5:19-21).

Stephen E. Jones, BSc. (Biology).

Exodus 3:1-6. 1Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight-why the bush does not burn up." 4When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am." 5"Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." 6Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

1 comment:

Stephen E. Jones said...


>re: bonobos:

Your comment was off-topic under my post "Re: according to ID theory is the Designer ..." [], so I am responding to it here.

mentions your post.


>It's interesting what you say and I hope that more funding can be raised to preserve the endangered species because a). they are a an endangered species;

I agree that *all* endangered species, including bonobos (Pan paniscus), be *conserved* (not "preserved" - which means in zoos, etc, not in the wild).

But since there are presumably *plenty* of bonobos in captivity, there is far less likelihood of bonobos going extinct than most other endangered species, and therefore I (and I presume most conservation biologists), would regard conserving other species that are at a far higher risk of actual *extinction*, as a higher priority for scarce conservation funding than bonobos.

>and b). there is the possibility that they are more capable of language skills and other cognitive processes than some people have so far been convinced.

However, I disagree that: 1) bonobos "are more capable of language skills." As I quoted Steven Pinker, a Darwinist atheist linguist (so not motivated by any Christian, creationist or ID considerations) in this post, bonobos, like *all* other non-human animals have *no* human language skills.

And 2) that that is an adequate motive to conserve bonobos anyway. I did a Conservation Biology unit in my biology degree and most conservation biologists are against giving a higher priority to conserving species just because they are more "charismatic", i.e. more attractive to us [see]. That skews scarce funding into conserving a comparatively few species that are usually less in danger of extinction, away from the many, less "charismatic" species, that are usually at greater risk of extinction.

>Would you like to see the endangered bonobo species assisted also?

Yes, but I presume there are far higher priorities for conservation than bonobos. See above.

>Looking after the garden and caring for the animals is probably a christian thing to do.

Agreed, on the principle that, "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." (Gen 2:15). Although this was specifically for the Garden of Eden, which Adam & Eve (whether literal or symbolic) were later banished from: "So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken" (Gen 3:23); the command that they "work the ground" continues (see also Ps 8:6
"You made him ruler over the works of your hands ...") today in the wider world beyond Eden.

But that applies to taking care of *all* species, not just the comparatively few "charismatic" ones like bonobos.

And the Genesis chapter just before, indicates that man is qualitatively distinct from *all* animals in that he can name them, but they are not a suitable helper for him: "So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field But for Adam no suitable helper was found" (Gen 2:20). So appealing to "Looking after the garden and caring for the animals" as being "a christian [sic] thing to do" is no help as a reason for conserving bonobos specifically on the grounds that there is "they are more capable of language skills" (which they are not anyway).

Indeed, personally I regard keeping highly intelligent and social animals like in captivity for years in close proximity to humans, away from socialising in groups of their own kind, in as close to their wild environment as possible, while trying in vain to teach them human language, is a form of animal *cruelty* (if not *extreme* cruelty-imagine if the tables were turned on a Planet of the Apes!) and should not be allowed.

Perhaps the best evidence that none of these apes can talk, is that one of the *first* things it would say, is what *we* would say in their situation, "please let me *out* of here"!

So, if you *really* care about bonobos, you should be advocating (if not agitating) that *all* experiments aimed at teaching human language to bonobos (and apes in general) be *stopped*!

Stephen E. Jones