For this blog post I chose to look into the Chimpanzee. I was recently invited to apply to a program in Sierra Leone regarding Chimpanzee behavior. This program is a field site that seeks to investigate how the chimpanzee’s communicate with one another using vocal cues and noises. This sounded very interesting to me, and pending my acceptance I might get the chance to look further into Chimpanzee communication, so I figured this was the perfect opportunity to learn the basics.
The article I chose was from the online database of the journal Current Biology and is titled Language Evolution: What Do Chimpanzees Have to Say? by Adam Clark Arcadi. So, what DO they have to say? This article opens with comparing chimpanzee vocal communication to human (and other animals’) communication methods, and the author quickly makes it clear that he is responding to a study by Slocombe and Zuberbuhler’s study in 2005 about Chimpanzee communication.
Throughout the article, Arcadi pinpoints several chimpanzee calls and their specific information, and discusses them in relation to the topic he is discussion. I thought it might be useful to take a look at these calls before discussion the comparative, critical, and general points of this article. Alarm calls when a predator is approaching are particularly important for the safety of the group, but what I didn’t know before was that there are different calls for different predators! Chimpanzees also use the “rough grunt upon discovering food,” and will vary in frequency based on the amount of food present. He finishes the article by making the claim that Slocombe and Zuberbuhler would have found it useful to take into account things like age, sex, and even idiosyncrasy. Arcadi points out that larger sample sizes were needed, but this early study does offer a starting point from which to conduct future research. He concludes by saying that by “tracing evolution of language” we can take a look into the functionalism behind such calls and vocal communication.
I found that the authors specific approach to focusing on an evolutionary scope was particularly interesting. Arcadi sets good background information so that his paper might be accessible to many types of audiences. I felt as though, previously knowing nothing about Chimpanzee vocal communication, I was assimilated into the topic appropriately. This was one of the strongest points of the article. I also particularly liked how his overall goal was not necessarily to convey a specific set of data, but to critique another article while introducing the notion that it is important to take certain characteristics of study into mind.
I was worried that the article could have become slightly anthropocentric, as we have discussed earlier in the class. Arcadi, however, devotes a portion of the paper to discussing the specific and important ways in which chimpanzee “calls differ from human words.” The calls to which Arcadi is referring vary based on different situations. He mentions that calls responding to a predatory threat vary based on what predator is encroaching, and that recipients of the calls will respond to each call appropriately. One thing Arcadi placed his finger on nicely was that human words often refer to “concepts, rather than physical entities,” and that is an aspect that sets us apart. Arcadi uses the term functional reference to characterize certain types of communication that refer to certain pieces of information. Perhaps I needed more information about vocal communication in the first place, but I found his concepts to be slightly abstract and difficult to follow.
Overall I thought the article was definitely insightful and a great starting point to further my investigation on chimpanzee vocal behavior. I would have liked to see more information about specific purposes and the functionalist perspectives, rather than just a statement that they are present. This article is also almost 10 years old (it was 2005. Isn’t that weird…) and my next step would be to look for something more current! I would definitely recommend this article to anyone who is looking to gain more information about comparing primate communication with humans.
Here is a link to the article: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982205012200
Arcadi, Adam clark. “Language Evolution: What do Chimpanzees Have to Say?” Current Biology 15, no. 21 (2005): R884-R886.