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August 5, 2016 1:50 am

What Separates Humans From Animals Is Our Connection to God

avatar by Pini Dunner

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Dr. Robert Shumaker and an ape named Azy work on computer exercises — Photo: Courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch.

Dr. Robert Shumaker and an ape named Azy work on computer exercises — Photo: Courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch.

The headline was arresting enough to grab my attention: “Orangutans Exhibit Human-Like Speech for the First Time on Record.” Intrigued by the thought of talking apes, I dove into the article hoping to read how some hidden community of high-end primates, able to converse intelligibly and intelligently on literature and economics, had been discovered by a group of intrepid anthropologists. Or perhaps the garrulous orangutans referred to in the headline were busy engaging in heated discussions about the upcoming presidential election. Now wouldn’t that be fascinating — I thought to myself — hearing what a parallel species has to say about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton!

To my immense disappointment, all such hopeful expectations were quickly dashed. It turned out the article was not about orangutans in the plural, but about one very forlorn looking specimen called Rocky, an exhibit at Indianapolis Zoo. Rocky apparently spent her formative years in the entertainment industry as “the most seen orangutan in commercials, movies, and other media.” More recently, she has confounded researchers with her ability to mimic human sounds in what they refer to as a “conversational manner.” Well, that may be the case, but you will surely agree that this is quite a comedown from the “human-like speech” promise of the headline.

According to Dr. Rob Shumaker, director of the zoo and author of a recently published paper on this phenomenon, “orangutans can clearly and carefully control their vocalizations and they can do it in real-time interacting with another individual.” To show the extent of Rocky’s vocal abilities, the researchers held conversations with her in which she mimicked a variety of human sounds in return for treats.

A video link led to a clip of one of these documented “conversations” — and I watched it several times trying to see for myself how Rocky was interacting conversationally in a way that exceeded the acrobatics of a dolphin doing tricks for treats at SeaWorld, or a parrot mimicking human speech in reaction to some particular situation. In the end, I was quite underwhelmed by Rocky, or more specifically by Shumaker, whose grandiose claims seemed to me to be somewhat overstated. The fact that an ape can mimic human sounds reveals nothing about the origins of human speech, as he claims it does, nor can it tell us anything more than the fact that this particular ape has learned to use its vocal chords to emit sounds that result in the gift of candy.

The debate about animal intelligence has raged for years, long before Rocky and Shumaker. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the same debate erupted around Koko the gorilla, a resident of Woodside CA, whose observable use of ASL (American Sign Language) to communicate, often in ways that confounded conventional wisdom on animal intelligence and comprehension, led to frequent press coverage and lucrative public interest. The age-old saying “if only they could talk” seemed to crystallize in this lovable 300-pound lowland gorilla with a fondness for pet kittens. She recognized herself in the mirror, articulated her emotions and even cracked jokes. And, as I found out when I googled her, she is still going strong at the age of 45!

And Koko is hardly the first example of an intelligent mammal. In the 1780s, a sideshow animal known as “Learned Pig” caused quite a stir in England. Able to choose from a series of printed cards, the savvy hog answered complex mathematical problems and a range of questions by spelling out words. Learned Pig was followed by many other similarly adept pigs, including one called the “Pig of Knowledge,” who was introduced to President John Adams in the late 1790s.

Rather than delving into the debate over whether animals are capable of communicating with humans, as opposed to simply responding to human prompts and expectations, for the purposes of this piece I will simply accept that there are animals, however few, who have the capacity to converse with humans through sounds or signs, or by choosing cards — and that this shows how human superiority is rather more limited than we all believe it to be.

Actually, such animal intelligence proves nothing of the sort. Even if Rocky was able to converse intelligibly with her keeper, or Koko could ASL better than other ASL users, or there was a savvy swine out there that could answer trigonometry questions with greater accuracy than the average 10th grader, it would have no bearing on the question at hand. Our capacity for greatness surpasses that of any other living creature, and the window into that greatness is precisely via the medium of speech and communication.

The first of this week’s two Torah portions, Mattot, begins with a chapter that deals with oaths and vows. The most striking words occur close to the beginning of the chapter: “Any person who makes a vow before God must never break his word; he must do everything he said he would.”

Our mouths are not just a means of communicating with others, whether animal or human, nor is our ability to articulate thoughts via speech particularly unique. Our vernacular may be more complex than that of animals, but even insects communicate with each other in their own way.

What makes our communication unique is the fact that we are aware of God, and that what we commit to is uttered before Him. No animal, even an orangutan that shares 97% of our DNA structure, has any conscious awareness of God. Which means that even if they could speak like you or me, it would only be to communicate for self-serving interests. It also means that if we choose not to communicate “before God,” or if we are prone to breaking our word, we are no better than Rocky or Koko. Perhaps another thought to bear in mind in the countdown to the November election.

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  • David L

    What fundamental ability distinguishes the human animal from the other non-human animals?

    1. The ability of complex speech. (from this we get various forms of writing and more. Writing represents speech)
    2. Imagination unlimited.
    3. Complex emotions.
    There – you have it all.

    • Diana Bornstein

      Hi David, I’ve replied to 1,2, and 3 below.

      1. In and excerpt from an article from “Science” online magazine titled “Animal speech shows similarities to human language”
      Virginia Morell writes “Killer whales whistle, finches twitter, and hyraxes wail. But all of these sounds have long been considered fundamentally different from human language. Now, a new study reveals that the calls of animals contain more language like characteristics than previously believed. Scientists reached this conclusion after analyzing the vocal sequences of seven species of birds and mammals, from Carolina chickadees to bats and orangutans. They found that animal vocalizations must be generated by complex statistical processes, making them more similar to human language. In the past, researchers assumed that a “Markovian” model best explained the vocal sequences in animal calls. According to this model, animal calls are fairly random and lack the complexity of human language. However, no one had actually tested the Markovian model on animal vocalizations until now. After applying it to the various species’ calls, the researchers report this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that they found no evidence that animals’ vocalizations are restricted as the model would suggest. And that means the gap between human language and animal calls is not so wide after all.”

      In an article called “10 Human Attributes Found in Animals” Kate Mulcahy writes ” all great apes, crows and ravens, dolphins, elephants, and even octopuses are verified tool users. Often this tool use is cultural, that is, the tools used and their manner of use will vary from one population to the next within a species. Chimpanzees use stones as hammers and anvils and fashion spears for hunting, gorillas will use walking sticks, ravens make their own toys, gulls will use bait to fish with, dolphins use shells to catch fish in and eat from, octopuses will use coconut shells as a shelter, and elephants make water vessels to drink”.
      2. Imagination: The tools usage rather outlines on a miniscule scale, the imagination of some animals.
      3. I found it surprising that you mention complex emotions. People and animals share many of the same emotions. They can be happy and ecstatic, sad lonely and depressed, anxious and fearful, angry, jealous, and they grieve over loss, just to mention a few.

      I think that we humans have many valuable things to learn from our animal friends. They are known to be devoted and never betray, thankful and never judgmental, forgiving and loving. There is never “hatred without a cause”, unless a human instills it. Perhaps the difference between animals and humans is how we treat each other. I believe that Hashem loves all of His creation and so should we.

  • Jay Lavine

    Humans are animals. Looking for an example of an intelligent mammal? Humans are mammals. Primates, members of the Hominidae (great apes) family. This is basic biology.

    There always seems to be the need for a fall guy, to put others down in order to aggrandize ourselves. Always the need to characterize ourselves with superlatives — the best, the most intelligent, the most prestigious, the most influential, and on and on. Can’t we just appreciate all of Hashem’s creation and be comfortable in our own skin without depreciating anyone or anything else?

    All life exists on a continuum. As the Rav, Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, pointed out, “the difference consists only in degree, not in kind” (The Emergence of Ethical Man, Ktav, 2005). What humans do have is the ability to descend below the level of the other animals, as implied by the verb “veyirdu” in Genesis 1:26. And they frequently do.

  • Diana Bornstein

    I believe that Hashem interacts with the animals more than we realize. HE made a covenant specifically mentioning the animal kingdom 5 times in Genesis chap. 9, in numerous passages it is written that certain animals cry out to Hashem for their food, Hashem somehow communicated with the animals to bring them to Noah, He commanded the ravens to feed Elijah,In Psalm 148, the psalmist called on everything to praise Adonai. He included in this call sea creatures, beasts, cattle, creeping things and birds (vv. 7, 10). The final verse of the final psalm of the entire psalter reads: “Let everything that has breath praise Adonai. Praise the Adonai!” (Ps. 150:6). Even though they don’t do so with words, animals still bring glory and praise to Hashem. One thing that seems to be lacking in Jewish learning institutions is teaching the students to respect and show kindness to the animal kingdom, which Hashem Himself created.