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50 Years of Language Experiments with Great Apes

Igor Hanzel

The book approaches the language experiments with great apes performed in the last 50 years from the point of view of logical semantics, speech act theory, and philosophy of the social sciences based on the linguistic turn in philosophy. The author reconstructs the experiments with the great apes Washoe, Chantek, Lana, Sherman, Austin, Kanzi, Sarah and Sheba who were taught various kinds of languages, including the language of mathematics. From the point of view of the philosophy of science these experiments are interpreted as being part of the social sciences. The book proposes new mathematical experiments that are based on modern semantical reconstruction of the language of mathematics. The author shows that modern scientific research into great apes has shifted from natural science to social science.

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5. Mathematics in Great Apes


5. Mathematics in Great Apes

Because my focus is on language experiments with great apes, mathematical experiments with them can be divided into three groups: experiments with no numerals, experiments that include numerals and physically present items, and experiments with numerals only.

The first were experiments where no numerals – that is, no signs of language of mathematics – were involved but they still aimed at testing certain mathematical capabilities in great apes. Examples of these are the experiments described in (Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh and Hegel 1987) and (Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh and Pate 1988). These experiments showed that great apes were capable of selecting from two trays presented to them, one containing the larger amount of food items, with their choice being based on the operation of addition of pairs of items on each of the two trays.

The second were experiments in which numerals were involved alongside with physically present items and in which the aim of the experiments was to test great apes for their ability to label the numerosity of these items by means of numerals. So, for example, in (Matsuzawa 1985) it is shown that the female chimpanzee Ai displayed the capability to pair numerals embossed on keys on a keyboard with the number of elements from sets displayed on a computer screen and where the sets contained up to six elements. A similar type of experiments was described in (Boysen 1993), in which several apes were able to associate numerals placed...

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