Holding the Chicken

Over the weekend I’ve been reading “Aping Language”:http://www.citeulike.org/user/rex/article/232188, Joel Wallman’s scrupulous dissection of claims that apes can learn language. It is well-written and brief (the main body of the text is just about 150 pages). In fact I would even go so far as to say it was a great read, except that Wallman’s analysis of the data is too close for someone like me, a sociocultural anthropologist who just wants the big picture and isn’t too interested in nitty-gritty on a lazy saturday afternoon. Indeed, Wallman seems at times to be actively supressing a talent for academic bloodsport which, while discrediting his books objectivity, would make it much more entertaining. Those of us just along for the ride have to content ourselves with zingers like this:

Partisans of the apes have protested that detractors employ rubber rulers and moving targets in comparing apes and children. The ape researchers, on the other hand, could be described as having fixated on certain of these criteria, generally the most mechanical and readily quantified, and then having either expressly trained them or searched them out in their data. This, in itself, is not an objectionable practice. One is put in mind, however, of Diogenes, the Athenian cynic who, in response to Plato’s definition of man as “a featherless biped,” produced a plucked chicken. In both cases, the claimed identity may be valid on the narrow grounds used, but there is still a profound difference between the alleged equivalent and the genuine article. The difference between the cases — aside from the fact that, as I have argued, the apes are _not_ equivalent to children on the various indices used in the literature — is that Diogenes knew he was holding a chicken.

From now on I’m going to incorporate the phrase “that guy’s holding a chicken (and he doesn’t even know it)” into my academic discourse whenever possible.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org