Can baboons read? Kind of.

Earlier this year, French behavioral scientist Jonathan Grainger and his team taught baboons to read. Well, not exactly. They taught the baboons to recognize words. The baboons played a game on a computer screen. When a fake word appears, they were supposed to press a blue plus sign. When a real word shows up, they were supposed to press a green circle. The baboons were rewarded with food whenever they got the correct answer. Over time, they learned to recognize common letter combinations, like TH, PR, RD, and others. After months of playing this game, the baboons accurately distinguished between a made-up word like “bnol” and a real word like “bowl” 75% of the time. That’s better than your average three-year old.

Of course, this does not mean that the baboons can read. They cannot look at the word book and connect it to the object book. That kind of abstract thinking separates humans from any other species. We see the word scissors – which has nothing whatsoever to do with the object – but our mind conjures a picture of scissors, a project that we’ve done with scissors, and many other memories. This also applies to predictive thinking. When we see the word tomorrow, we think about what we will make for dinner or whether it will rain. These abstract concepts define our species.

However, this evidence does prove that non-human primates can recognize letter patterns, which may be the evolutionary precursor to reading. Our brains are inclined to recognize letters, like patterns on a piece of ripe fruit.

This also makes us wonder: what is language? It is not merely the words on the page or the sounds that you hear. Language only becomes language when it’s understood by a brain.

What do think of this primate research? Are the baboons really reading?

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