Doctor John Dolittle satisfied a nagging curiosity for young readers: What are animals saying? Even scientists can appreciate the premise behind Hugh Lofting’s children books, though not many likely seek the secret language of squid. For social psychologists, the evolution of language has been a fascination at least since the pragmatists.
The New York Times reports efforts to decipher early traces of language development among non-human primates. The review comes over 30 years after a Times reporter allegedly used sign language to communicate with a chimpanzee. More recently, scientists differentiated alarm calls by vervet monkeys, each one indicating a specific predator. Others suggested that baboons understand social hierarchy based on the order of sounds among their peers. And Campbell’s monkeys seem to add suffixes to alarm calls to signify whether a threat has been directly or indirectly observed.
Given that many non-human primates are physically able to generate human language sounds, the findings beg the question: How do we develop language while our relatives fail? Or in the words of the article author, Nicholas Wade, “What is it that has kept all other primates locked in the prison of their own thoughts?”
George Herbert Mead suggested that language development stems from a child’s ability, through early role-playing games, to take on the role of the other. The development of the self relates to the ability to recognize how others’ actions affect one’s own. Contrary to Wade’s suggestion that non-human primates simply cannot communicate their thoughts, Mead suggests that communication is at the root of, and in some sense precedes, human thought.
While the presence of primitive communication does not necessarily mean that Campbell’s monkeys are able to think like humans, we can still learn about language development by observing, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, how the words are used.
Some courts have been ruling against evolutionary biology. A recent story in the New York Times Magazine tells of husbands who suspected and later discovered they were not biological fathers after all.
In one case, with the help of a do-it-yourself DNA test kit, Mike found out after almost nine years of parenting a girl, L., that his wife had been keeping the secret from him. He filed for divorce, but said of his relationship with his daughter, “Just because our relationship started because of someone else’s lie doesn’t mean the bond that developed isn’t real.”
So Mike continues to see L., though she lives with her mother. Since Mike has been paying child support, it was perhaps doubly offensive when his ex-wife began seeing L.’s biological father. Even though he has filed to end his paternal rights, hoping to encourage the biological father to contribute some of the financial burden, the courts have ruled against him, maintaining that he is the legal father.
When asked about Mike, L. told the New York Times, “I want him always to be my real dad. Because if he’s not my dad, then who is he?”
A tragedy may have been averted when a knife was confiscated from a Delaware student last week. According to the New York Times, the school district’s rules say that Zachary Christie should be sent to reform school, where an important lesson is surely to be learned.
After joining the Cub Scouts, the knife-fork-spoon combo utensil seemed like it would be nice to use at lunch—on his food, we can presume. The lesson is more of a reminder: deterrence efforts are not as useful as policymakers hope. “It just seems unfair,” the 6-year-old said, probably not thinking about the intended effect of such policies.
Presuming that children are motivated by the economic or social benefits of finishing school, zero-tolerance policies are meant to give children motivation for following rules. But even the U.S. Department of Education admits zero-tolerance policies are inequitable and “counterproductive.”
Zachary’s case is similar to one in which a third grader was expelled for a year when her grandmother sent her with a birthday cake accompanied by a knife. Never mind that it proved useful for the teacher who proceeded to cut the cake, but heaven knows what the child would have done if she had gotten to it first.
Zero-tolerance policies should remind us of Reagan-era crime control models that brought us three-strikes-you’re-out laws. We now know that “criminals” or 6-year-olds are not rationally considering the possible consequences of their decisions in such a way, and I doubt Zachary’s peers feel any safer.
Posted in Emotion and Motivation, Health
Tagged consequences, cost-benefit, crime, decisions, education, knives at school, motivation, rationality, Reagan, reform, safety, Zachary Christie, zero-tolerance