Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Learning From Other Primates

I've been catching up on my huge backlog of TedTalks and recently watched Susan Savage-Rumbaugh's "Apes that write, start fires, and play Pac-Man," a fascinating look at her work with bonobos.

She contends that culture, rather than genetics, determines much of the intelligence and skill of humans and other primates (though this part is still controversial). What her group has done in their research is to attempt to create a kind of hybrid family of humans and bonobos (aka "pygmy chimpanzees") who live and work and play together, and look at how and what the bonobos learn.

What they've learned is pretty amazing--starting and tending campfires, communicating with a symbol lexicon, driving electric golf carts, playing video games, and much more. There's tons more information about them at the Great Ape Trust.

One of Rumbaugh's comments in the TedTalk that especially struck me was:

We found that the most important thing for permitting bonobos to acquire language is not to teach them. It's simply to use language around them—because the driving force in language acquisition is to understand what others who are important to you are saying to you.

Sounds like unschooling, doesn't it?