Leave it to scientists to downplay baboons. Again.
When a group of British baboons (no, that’s not redundant!) recently displayed the ability to distinguish between real words and nonwords just by seeing them in print, scientists didn’t celebrate. They didn’t think about a new genre of books (“monkey mysteries?” “anthropoid autobiographies?” “simeon sci-fi?”). They didn’t consider that this may be a new audience for newspapers (“Hey, did you notice that the edition with the review of ‘Planet of the Apes’ sold out?”).
In fact, the scientists were preoccupied with making one point: The animals can’t really read. They can only distinguish words.
They said it over and over.
“It’s not that baboons can read,” insisted Michael Platt of Duke University, who was one of the researchers in the study. (Which brings up an interesting question: Would the baboons recognize the name of Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s basketball coach?)
Platt (a real word, despite how strange it appears) wasn’t alone. Erin Loury, a reporter for Science Magazine, wrote a piece on the study.
“Of course, the baboons were not actually reading, because they didn’t know what the words meant,” Loury wrote.
Everywhere you turned on this story, someone was trying to convince you that baboons can’t read.
That sounds like wishful thinking. That sounds like a Middle East dictator insisting “the people won’t revolt.” It sounds like a 2005 homeowner saying, “I’m sure the interest rate won’t go up.” It sounds like me telling my sons, “I’m sure that milk is still good.”
We’re supposed to believe that baboons can distinguish real words but somehow can’t read?
I find that unlikely.
Baboons get the benefit of the doubt here because I’ve got a stack of emails from lovable chimps who love this column! I’ve heard from dozens of furry primates who relate to my sense of social justice. Just last week, Lancelot Link commented on my column on the Daily Republic’s website!
Scientists and reporters who insist that baboons can’t read aren’t using science. They’re just imposing their own prejudices on the study — like when scientists deduced that I was eating slices of cheese off the floor only because I was hungry, insisting that I couldn’t “like the flavor.” Hah! They’ve never tasted lint cheese.
But that was a test a long time ago, before I escaped the testing facility. And it’s the subject for another column.
But first, let’s revisit the story of the reading baboons.
The London-based study revealed that baboons could distinguish between real English words and nonwords just by looking at them on a computer screen. Over time, they were able to recognize familiar letter patterns appearing and tap the computer to indicate their choice. Over time, it became obvious that they could tell which blocks of letters were words and which were made up (knowing, for instance, that “mars” is a word, but “Mraz” isn’t).
After six weeks (being rewarded with food for being right) the baboons learned dozens of words. One could reliably identify 308 words — for which he was rewarded with a subscription to “Us” magazine, where he would only need 200 of them.
Do you understand what this means? What about when they take the next step and start . . . writing.
That’s right — we may not need a million monkeys at a million keyboards to ultimately produce the work of Shakespeare, as famously opined. With the ability to read — and type — it may just take a particularly gifted monkey with a 16th century sense of the world to duplicate something that Shakespeare wrote.
My guess for the first success?
“The Merchimp of Venice.”
Reach Brad Stanhope at 427-6958 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bradstanhope.