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Friday, November 6, 2015

Was it our ability to ask that made our species unique? What’s your opinion?

In the past five decades, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos were shown capable of learning sign language (Blake, 2004; Gibson, 2011). An important cognitive distinction between the language used by humans and the language used by other apes is with the ability to ask questions. This was first noted by (Premack & Premack, 1984) who reported that, although their chimpanzee, Sarah, showed no difficulty answering questions or repeating questions before answering them, she never used the question signs for inquiring about her own environment. Jordania (2006), in his review of the literature, noted that other signing apes did not utilize questions and that their initiation of conversations was limited to commands (e.g., “me more eat”) and observational statements(e.g., “bird there”). This absence of a questioning mind is in direct contrast to human toddlers and children, who are renown for their incessant use of questions. My interpretation of this human-ape distinction is that during human evolution, we transitioned from the display of curiosity toward items that are present in our environment (i.e., observational statements) to curiosity toward items that are absent in our environment (i.e., WH questions). Developing curiosity about out of sight events and objects could thus explain the rapid migration of humans across the globe. Furthermore, this curiosity toward the unknown is the driving force behind scientific exploration and technological development. One could hence argue that it is the ability to ask that separates us from other animals and makes the human species unique.