Long post. Input welcome on any aspect of what I am discussing but I end the post with a very specific question, to which I would really like an answer: do our esteemed primate cousins ask questions? Yet more specifically: have language-trained non-human primates demonstrated the ability to ask questions? (Communicatively elicit desired information from their fellows or humans?)
But let me first back up and give you my situation and needs.
Next semester I am helping to team-teach a new general education module on ‘Questions’. A critical-thinking class, then; but our mandate is to make it multi-disciplinary. I am supposed to start things off with questions in philosophy and a philosophy of questions. So (duh!) I start with Socrates. I am also going to talk about how, interestingly, despite the towering figure of Socrates, the philosophy of science doesn’t employ ‘question’ as a key term. (Explanation? Only a bazillion papers on that one. Questions? Not so much. But I have a passage from R.G. Collingwood, and another from Sylvain Bromberger, lined up and ready to go.)
Partly this is down to the Socratic method not being such a hot way to conduct empirical science. Partly it has to do with ‘question’ apparently falling more on the ‘logic of discovery’ side of the subject, which many thinkers have felt is important – how not! – but hard to rigorize to philosophical taste. Some phil science writers use ‘question’ interchangeably with ‘problem’, which is not obviously right, nor is ‘problem’ a key term in its own right for most folks. I’m not going to get deep into philosophy of science – no time! – but I do want to put a questioning frame around teaching questioning itself: if you want to ask good questions about physics, then study physics, not questions. The same goes for law, English lit, economics, etc. Can good questioning be taught, per se? Are some people better at it? If it can be taught, is it more a matter of limiting the downside – avoiding cognitive bias, not asking bad questions? Or is there an upside? Can we nurture our inner interrogator?
Speaking of which, I’m going to talk a bit about Bacon and good old ‘putting Nature to the question’. Just added the guy to my caricature set, by the by.
Questioning, as a concept, straddles communication, problem-solving, and self-criticism. In addition to ‘putting Nature to the question’, there’s putting our fellow humans to the question, i.e. asking stuff and getting answers (typically without the rack!) Last but not least, there’s putting ourselves to the question, i.e. having a kind of split-level soul in which one part is monitoring what some other part is up to. When we want to teach ‘questioning’, we mix up the three since they often go together. We are social problem-solvers, and problem-solving settings are great occasions for spurring self-criticism. Then again, there’s a world of difference between figuring out, and asking someone for the answer, so you don’t have to.
So the philosophy of questioning can seem like it’s about questioners – a mirror held up to interrogative natures; or it can seem quite detached from that. A question is a problem is a place at which digging may commence – or not.
Don’t even get me started with the philosophy of answers!
But I have a question for you, and if you’ve got an answer, I’d like it. (Otherwise I’ll have to figure it out myself, which would be a problem.) Do our primate cousins ask questions?
As I said: multi-disciplinary. We don’t happen to have either a psychologist or a biologist on our teaching team, so I’m going to stretch a little. I’m going to start with Socrates, as I said, but also with children, and also with non-human animals. That is, I’m going to tell students a bit about what the developmental psych literature has to say about questioning in children. When do kids start asking stuff? What are kids’ questions like? What do researchers have to say about the cognitive role of questioning in child development?
So far so good, but I ran into a research obstacle when I dropped the babies and turned to non-human animals. There is a ton of literature on problem-solving – which could be question-asking-and-answering, or maybe not. (I’d say: not obviously. It’s relatively easy, I think, to model problem-solving otherwise than on an erotetic basis – whatever R.G. Collingwood says to the contrary.) But there isn’t a lot that I’ve been able to find about the interrogative mode, as opposed to problem-solving: animals eliciting informational output from fellow animals. Are there, for example, social insects that ‘ping’ their fellows to release information? Bees dance to tell where flowers are. Do any bees dance to tell bees to dance to tell where flowers are? None that I know of. Obviously there could be conflation between imperative and interrogative modes here. You let me worry about that. Just tell me about that weird bug with the weird communication protocol you’ve heard of. But I will say this: we are more likely to presume animals are asking questions – as opposed to giving orders – if they are problem-solving. Social insects aren’t much for novel problem-solving. We don’t attribute curiosity to them, even though having a subjective itch for info really shouldn’t be constitutive of interrogative communication.
Moving up the scale, there are lots of puzzling intermediate cases. Any animal with sense organs – any perceptual capacity – is more or less constantly gathering information from its environment. Social animals with sense organs will often be gathering information from other animals in their vicinity. But opening my eyes is not employment of the interrogative mode. Bacon notwithstanding, there is a sense in which seeing is not questioning. The philosophy of questioning should not swallow the philosophy of perception in one gulp.
Seeing what your fellow social animals are up to is a slightly dicier case. Seeing isn’t questioning. Seeing seeing is closer. Sometimes. Gaze cuing. If I see my fellow pack member looking over there, I look, too. (Babies totally do this way early!) In a sense, I elicited information from a fellow animal, by following its gaze, and the animal provided it, by gazing. But this is a marginal case of questioning, since the function is a secondary one. Then again, if it weren’t for secondary functions, some things would only have one function at all, which would be a thin way to engineer. A secondary, yet proper function of my fellow pack member’s gaze is to direct my gaze, i.e. inform me of things in my environment that it is in the pack’s interest that I know about. So social animals are obviously built to do a lot of things – cue each other in various ways – that are functionally quite like asking questions and getting answers. Call it what you will. That’s kind of interesting.
Final case: our primate cousins. Do they ask questions? Surely yes, right? They communicate, they problem-solve. They are highly intelligent and highly curious. A few of them have actually been taught language, by humans, who are constantly pestering them with tests, in question form. It seems impossible that primates don’t ask questions. I couldn’t find much on this, however. Part of the problem is that ‘question’ got me false-positives, and ‘interrogative’ got me not a lot. But here’s the thing. I finally found one book that addresses the question directly and gives a definite, quite strong answer: namely, no. Primates don’t ask questions, not even the language-trained ones. Weird. Neat, if true.
The problem: it’s a book on ethnomusicology. All honor to ethnomusicology, but if a philosopher were to give a lecture on primatology, based on second-hand ethnomusicology – and if it turned out to be wrong – boy would that philosopher look like an asshole. To use the technical term for someone who has been pre-disconfirmed, in Popperian terms.
The book is: Who Asked The First Question: The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech by Joseph Jordania (Logos 2006). You can find it online but I can’t tell whether it has been posted with the author’s permission. I don’t know whether the author would want that linked to, so I shall abstain from providing Googlejuice to a possible pirate site.
You may guess that ‘question’ in the title plays on ‘call and response’ in music — antiphony. You would be right! Most of the book is comparative study of polyphonic music traditions. You will also surely guess this is yet another one of those ‘Eureka! I’ve solved the riddle of the origins of language and thought!’ titles. Having dutifully read the darn thing — while admittedly skimming some musicology bits — I don’t think Jordania displays signs of being a crank. (Sorry, you gotta worry, with a title like that.) He is currently associated with the University of Melbourne, which seems legit. He seems like a serious music scholar who has maybe talked himself into overconfidence in a non-falsifiable, speculative evolutionary hypothesis. We’ve all been there. (Except for the bit about being a serious music scholar.) I’m not going to give you a brief of his bold evolutionary theory, because it’s not strictly relevant to the question I’m asking. But you still might want to know. Fortunately, someone has written up a very clear, accurate (so far as I can tell) summary of his big-picture view of the evolutionary relationship between music and language here.
The following is the bit I want fact-checked, from pp 335-7:
Regarding questions, it has been documented for a few decades already that the vocabulary of enculturated apes contains question words as well, like “who” “what” “where” in Nim and Wishoe’s vocabulary (Bronowski & Bellugi 1980:110; Terrace, 1980:11, 167). So it seems almost obvious that apes must be able to ask questions.
Nevertheless, according to the accounts of the experiment authors, apes do not ask questions. Wonderful examples of conversations with their human teachers have been recorded and published (Terrace, 1980; Gardner & Gardner, 1975, 1984; Premack, 1976; Rumbaugh, 1977; Rumbaugh & Gill, 1977); Patterson & Linden, 1981). Analysis of their conversations shows that in human-primate conversations questions are asked by the humans only. The same can be said about the question words: apes understand them and give appropriate responses, but amazingly they themselves do not use question words in conversation with their human teachers. [emphasis in original]
The apes’ ability to comprehend questions is quite amazing. Describing Nim’s ability to be engaged in conversations on many topics, Terrace notes: “…His teachers would ask him questions such as What color?, What name of?, Who?, … Nim showed his comprehension by making an appropriate response… As his ability to sign improved, Nim began to reply to his teachers [sic] questions with more than one sign” (Terrace, 1980: 166-167). But the ability to ask questions proved to be much more difficult.
Ann and David Premacks designed a potentially promising methodology to teach apes to ask questions in the 1970s: “In principal interrogations can be taught either by removing an element from a familiar situation in the animal’s world or by removing the element from a language that maps the animal’s world. It is probable that one can induce questions by purposefully removing key elements from a familiar situation. Suppose a chimpanzee received its daily ration of food at a specific time and place, and then one day the food was not there. A chimpanzee trained in the interrogatives might inquire ‘Where is my food?’ or, is Sarah’s case ‘My food is ?’ Sarah was never put in a situation that might induce such interrogation because for our purposes it was easier to teach Sarah to answer questions” (Premack & Premack, 1991 :20-21).
More than a decade later after writing these words of how to teach apes to ask questions, Premacks wrote: “Though she [Sarah] understood the question, she did not herself ask any questions—unlike the child who asks interminable questions, such as What that? Who making noise? When Daddy come home? Me go Granny’s house? Where puppy? Sarah never delayed the departure of her trainer after her lessons by asking where the trainer was going, when she was returning, or anything else” Premack & Premack 1983:29). Amazingly, Sarah would sometimes “steal” the words from the trainers, and then she would happily repeat the questions asked by trainers to her and then repeat her own answer [emphasis in original]. And still, she never asked trainers any questions.
Earlier Washoe also failed to formulate and ask questions, though that was one of the aims of the Gardners’ project (Gardner & Gardner, 1969, 1975; Bronowski & Bellugi, 1984:110; McNeill, 1980:152-153). Despite all their achievements, Kanzi and Panbanisha do not seem to possess the ability to ask questions as well. At least, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her to-authors never seem to have claimed this so far (Savage-Rumbaugh, 1986; Savage-Rumbaugh and Levin, 1994; Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1993, 1998, 2001).
The only case when it was claimed that an ape asked a question that I am aware of was connected to the chimpanzee Lana. (Lana was a chimpanzee that participated in (Lana was a chimpanzee that participated in Duane Rumbaugh’s experiments in the 1970’s.) “When the machine [food-giving machine] was broken and food could not be loaded, Lana was able to ask: ‘?You move food into room?’” (Savage-Rumbaugh & Levin, 1994:143-144) Even if this is the case of an ape asking a question, it would be strange to consider the possibility that apes would ask a question of a machine (who can not [sic] give them an answer) and would never ask questions of their human trainers, who can interact and give them answers. Given the natural curiosity of the apes, it would be natural to expect that if apes know how to ask questions, they would be asking plenty of questions.
So, according to our current knowledge, despite all their cognitive achievements, apes do not ask questions. They are apparently very good in replying to human questions, and they do understand quite complex requests and questions, but fail to ask questions [emphasis in original]. In cases when they begin a conversation, their utterances are either statements (“Bird there”), or orders/requests (“Play me”, “Tickle me”, “Me more eat”, etc). There seems to be something very important in this fascinating fact, something connected with the evolutionary distinction between the cognitive capacities of apes and humans.
Accordingly I would suggest that it is not the recognition of ourselves as individuals that makes us humans (we know that apes, at least chimpanzees and orangutans, are as good as humans at recognizing themselves in the mirror). It is, rather, recognition of other members of the society as individuals with equal cognitive abilities and the employment of their cognitive abilities as a source of information (asking questions), that makes us human, and our language – human language.
There is a subtle connection between the ability to ask questions and the “theory of mind”. Reference to the cognition of another individual as a source of information should be considered one of the highest forms of the “theory of mind” (or TOM. Premack & Dasser, 1991; Cheney & Seyfarth, 1991; Povinelli, 1993; see also Mead, 1934). According to the available information, apes lack this ability: “The chimpanzee has passed tests suggesting that it attributes states of minds to the other one. These states, however, are either motivational…, or perceptual… Decisive evidence for the attribution of informational states is still lacking (Premack & Dasser, 1991:265). (336)
The fascinating fact about the TOM and questioning behavior is that children learn the mystery of asking questions long before they show the development of TOM. This is fascinating, as apes are able to acquire at least some elements of TOM, which appears around the age of four in children’s development (Astington & Gopnik, 1991:12), but at the same time apes seem unable to learn questioning, which appears in children’s development in the form of correctly pronounced question intonation much earlier—before a child turns even one (Crystal, 1987: 241, 143).
Is any of this provably false? If so: prove it! I’ve been reading some of the stuff he cites. These are reputable authorities. But are there relevant studies Jordania does not cite? I’m obviously nervous, relying on such a strong claim from a non-primatologist; then again, the primatology I’ve been reading does not seem to me to refute it. The TOM stuff is highly controversial, but Jordania seems to fit in with the (as respectable as any other) views advanced by, for example, Cheney and Seyfarth. I just finished reading Baboon Metaphysics, which was a lot of fun. And I learned a lot. Cheney and Seyfarth don’t come right out and say what Jordania says, in so many words. But they provide a lot of evidence that there are weird holes in the TOM capacities of baboons, that would seem to fit with the limitations Jordania is positing. (Consistency is not proof, of course.)
And it’s totally important to remember that we shouldn’t say primates can’t do something just because no one has yet proven they can.
This post has gone on long enough. Maybe tomorrow I’ll do my best to write up my best hypothesis about how this Jordania hypothesis could make sense. There are so many cognitively sophisticated things various non-human primates provably can do: they can communicate. They can problem-solve. They are social in sophisticated ways. Chimp A may know that chimp B knows where food is hidden, and A may try to figure out where by following chimp B’s gaze; And chimp B, knowing chimp A is doing this, may misdirect by gazing in the wrong direction. How could you be able to do that AND be trained in the use of language AND be asked questions by humans all day AND not think to ask questions yourself, from time to time? It’s kind of weird.
If you can use a tool to get ants out of a hole, why not use a tool to get answers out of someone else’s head?
I don’t much like the frame Jordania puts around his idea: Man, the Interrogative Beast! I think, in general, it’s a hazardous temptation – borderline unscientific – to be looking for the thing humans do which no other species can. We don’t, a priori, assume every species has some one thing it can do that no other species can do. And the wages of saying ‘only humans do X’ is usually that it turns out a gray parrot did that very thing last year. (How embarrassing!) I’m actually more interested in experimentally denigrating questions than in elevating the status of humans. It seems like you can do a lot of problem-solving and communicating without employing verbal interrogatives.
Or maybe Jordania’s thesis is provably false. You tell me. I’m asking.