Learning is to suck at the bones of the dead

I recently received a CD with the music to the film Tous les martins du monde, a biopic of the baroque musician Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and his student Marin Marais. The booklet includes various texts of people that were involved in making the film and the music. Surprisingly I found a text that very nicely describes cumulative culture. What I would describe as accumulating information and knowledge, improving upon it, and passing on to the next generation, is much more artistically expressed by the following text of the author Pascal Quignard:

The world of imagination sends out its shoots into the real world, and in time the two worlds gradually interlace, ramify and increase. Art is so extraordinary. Survival is so extraordinary. They begin by consuming our mother in her womb, then we are nourished by her milk. We steal the language before her very eyes. We are all thieves. We invent sense in answer to her smiles.

To learn is to suck at the bones of the dead, crack them open, to whistle in the death of those who preceded us.

To live is to live as a parasite on their works, on the ruins and the memory of their works. We live surrounded by hallucinations which only barely conceal deprivation and absence. We are all precarious and desynchronised. We begin to early. We all die before we have fully ripened.
The source is always invisible.
Messages of truth flow through bodies, unperceived by the senders and receivers of those messages.

Pascal Quignard
Paris, October 2001

Looking for the CD? Here it is.

Bilingual chimpanzees?

Maybe you came across these news last week: a group of chimpanzees from a Dutch zoo was moved to a zoo in Scotland where the newcomers adopted the local grunts for apples. That is actually quite a nice story Watson and colleagues, from the University of York, report in Current Biology. They recorded the sounds of either individual of the two groups when they encountered apples. What the analysis shows is that the initially high-pitched calls from the Dutch chimpanzees converged towards the softer calls from the Scottish conspecifics.

So far, it was assumed that the sounds primates produce are based on their emotional state, e.g. arousal when confronted with their favourite food (in this case apples – not bananas). Therefore, it was assumed that these sounds are fixed referential calls that would not change. Although prior studies have shown that these calls can be modified, the present study appears to be the first that demonstrates that non-human animals actively adapt referential vocalisation due to social learning from conspecifics.

Interestingly, this transition took three years (data was recorded from 2010 to 2013). The authors explain this with the time it took for the social integration of the two groups.

So, what is so special about this finding? Well, while different popular science sources like BBC, ScienceDaily, and NewScientist immediately proclaimed bilingual chimpanzees and the end of the uniqueness of human language, the authors of the study are a bit more careful in phrasing their insights. The finding that the ‘grunts’ are not as rigid and fixed as initially thought brings them closer to referential words used by humans. And because referential words are the fundament of human language its principle concept might go far further back in time than previously thought.

But is it true that the Dutch chimpanzees learned Scottish? No, says Brandon Wheeler of the University of Kent in the NewScientist article. What the researchers observed is less a form of learning a language but rather adopting a different accent for the same emotional sound.

In any case, it is an interesting study that calls for follow up studies. For example, can we observe that ‘foreign’ chimpanzees learn a referential grunt for something they have not experienced before? To me it is also interesting why the Dutch group learned the Scottish grunt, although they were the slightly bigger group. Pure chance? Did the Dutch chimpanzees preferred the softer grunt over their own’s? Future studies might show.

Sources | CurrentBiologyScience | NewScientist | ScienceDaily | BBC 

Watson, S. K., Townsend, S. W., Schel, A. M., Wilke, C., Wallace, E. K., Cheng, L., … Slocombe, K. E. (2015). Vocal Learning in the Functionally Referential Food Grunts of Chimpanzees. Current Biology, 25(4), 495–499. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.12.032