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Hugo Rheinhold, "Ape with Skull", by Darwin Monkey

Hugo Rheinhold, "Ape with Skull", (Darwin Monkey)

A long-standing debate concerns whether humans are specialized for speech perception ; in the the second half of the nineteenth century, two of the primary figures in this debate were Charles Darwin and Friedrich Max Müller.

A distinguished scholar and one of the leading figures of Victorian cultural life, Müller stated that language was a “Rubicon” between man and brute. Müller specifically attacked the ideas Darwin had formulated about languages in the Descent of Man, where Darwin had rejected Müller’s ideas about Man’s special place in evolution. The difference of opinion led to a series of letters  between the two men of science.

The recent findings of an experiment published in the journal Current Biology could, however, prove to be further evidence that Darwin was right.

Some researchers argue that the capacity for language acquisition is demonstrated by the ability to understand synthetic speech, incomplete or distorted spoken words. Lisa Heimbauer and her colleagues Michael Beran and Michael Owren, from Georgia State University in Atlanta tested a chimpanzee, which had been raised by humans and spoken to as if she were human, to find out whether she too could recognise incomplete or distorted spoken words. The talented chimp, named Panzee, recognised degraded spoken words far more often than should have been the case by chance, providing evidence that our common ancestor would have had the ability to perceive speech.

So has the Rubicon been crossed?

Sources:
Lisa A. Heimbauer, Michael J. Beran and Michael J. Owren, A Chimpanzee Recognizes Synthetic Speech with Significantly Reduced Acoustic Cues to Phonetic Content, Current Biology,  Available online 30 June 2011.
 Matt Walker Editor, BBC Nature, “Chimp recognises synthetic speech”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/14045206

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Dr White, from the Darwin Correspondence Project,  is speaking on Darwin and the evolution of sympathy at a workshop in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen.

The event will focus on the moral and religious debates surrounding evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century and the implications of evolutionary theory for modern ethics and psychological models of the self.

Workshop in the History and Philosophy of Biology

Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine
and Department of Philosophy

Divinity Library, King’s College
University of Aberdeen

Saturday, May 21st 10:00-17:30

Programme:
10:00
Robert J. Richards, (Chicago)
Darwin’s Principles of Divergence and Natural Selection: Why Fodor was Almost Right
11:30
Paul White (Cambridge)
Becoming an Animal: Darwin and the Evolution of Sympathy
14:00
Pietro Corsi (Oxford)
Idola Tribus: Lamarck, Politics and Religion in the Early Nineteenth Century
15:00
Kevin Brosnan (Cambridge)
Do the Evolutionary Origins of our Moral Beliefs Undermine Moral Knowledge?
16:30
Catherine Wilson (Aberdeen)
From Biological Selves to Psychological Selves
The workshop is free and open to all. Registration is required via a note to c.wilson@abdn.ac.uk

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