Hanging from the Language Tree

In a famous experiment over 30 years ago, psychology professor Herb Terrace hoped to prove that chimpanzees could acquire speech. Today, as director of the Primate Cognition Laboratory at Columbia, he’s searching for the missing link to cognition.

by Cindy Rodríguez Published Fall 2009
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Bones Are of No Use

Through the study of primate cognition, we get clues about how the minds of humans evolved. “If you want to study cognition, this is where you go,” Terrace says. “The monkeys are a tool that allows us to go into the past of our own ancestry so we can have an understanding of how cognition evolved. This stuff doesn’t fossilize. Bones aren’t going to help you.”

Present-day monkeys, in other words, have minds that are similar to our common ancestors, a species that split from the line that led to humans millions of years ago. By studying their minds, researchers are able to understand the foundation of mental processes that evolved into the more complex mind of humans.

“By understanding the way a monkey’s mind works, we have a glimpse of the possibility of how a baby’s mind develops,” says Lisa Son, an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College who studied under Terrace and continues to collaborate with him. Son runs a child cognition lab at Barnard and says there are limitations on what you can glean from testing kids. “There are so many questions I want to answer about humans that you can get only from studying nonhumans,” Son says. “I know that sounds odd, that it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.”

“It’s a basic principle of science,” says Terrace. “If you want to understand something complex, start with the simplest preparation and see how it got there.”

Metacognition research also is helping educators who have struggled to find ways to teach autistic children. Three years ago, Terrace adapted one of his video skills tests for autistic children in a New Jersey school, and it proved more effective in teaching children math than having an instructor work directly with them. Because most autistic children have difficulty socializing, they learn more easily from machines than from people.

It is with a determined zeal that Terrace is hunting for answers about how humans gained the ability to speak, based on a theory he has developed. He plans to lay out his findings in a book he hopes to publish next year. In it, he’ll explain how the foundation of thought processes in monkeys became a foundation for humans, who developed a more sophisticated way of communicating. He wouldn’t have learned that without Ebbinghaus or Lashley, and certainly not without Nim Chimpsky.

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