That's the longest string of words that Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who scientists raised as a human and taught sign language in the 1970s, ever signed. He was the subject of Project Nim, an experiment conducted by cognitive scientists at Columbia University to investigate whether chimps can learn language.
After years of exposing Nim to all things human, the researchers concluded that although he did learn to express demands - the desire for an orange, for instance - and knew 125 words, he couldn't fully grasp language, at least as they defined it. Language requires not just vocabulary but also syntax, they argued. "Give orange me," for example, means something different than "give me orange." From a very young age, humans understand that; we have an innate ability to create new meanings by combining and ordering words in diverse ways. Nim had no such capacity, which is presumably true for all chimps.
Herb Terrace, the primate cognition scientist who led Project Nim, thinks chimps lack a "theory of mind": They cannot infer the mental state of another individual, whether they are happy, sad, angry, interested in some goal, in love, jealous or otherwise. Though chimps are very proficient at reading body language, Terrace explained, they cannot contemplate another being's state of mind when there is no body language.
This notion goes back to Nim the signing chimp's linguistic skills. Like an infant human, Nim spoke in "imperative mode," demanding things he wanted. But infantile demands aren't really the hallmark of language. As humans grow older, unlike chimps, we develop a much richer form of communication: "declarative mode."
According to Terrace, declarative language is based on conversational exchanges between a speaker and a listener for the purpose of exchanging information. It is maintained by secondary rewards such as 'thank you,' 'that's very interesting,' 'glad you mentioned that.' In the case of declarative language, a theory of mind is clearly necessary. If the speaker and the listener could not assume that their conversational partners had a theory of mind there would be no reason for them to talk to each other.
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