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Primate communication -

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Robyn Williams: Imagine you're an ethologist, a scientist studying animal or even human behaviour,
and you wanted to do research on human communication. What do you do? Watch people talk to each
other over coffee? No, you'd be misled. A Martian scientist landing in Australia today observing
young humans communicating would see them alone, walking and holding their left or their right
ears. They would conclude that communication is a solitary pursuit. That's the kind of conundrum
Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester is up against; how to watch animals without imposing human assumptions
about what they're actually doing. So she's taking notes of everything.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: You're taking into consideration the timing and the spacing and a lot
of contextual factors like how close the animals are when they interact and the location where
things happen, and is it one recipient or multiple recipients, and so forth.

Robyn Williams: Yes, because we do it ourselves when we're talking to each other, we look at each
other, we gesticulate, we make noises, and there are lots of aspects beyond the plain words. What
you're saying is that primates do this as well.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: Absolutely. What I really wanted to do was take our study of animal
behaviour back to a very, very fundamental basic level where we're taking the actual individual
actions and looking at them within context and not subjectively prescribing analogous human
repertoires of events to what's happening, which is very easy to do because they so closely mimic
our behaviours. But to be honest we don't really understand our own behaviours that well, so we
really need to step backwards.

Robyn Williams: So you've actually got two cameras. You're doing a one-shot of the actual creature
and a two-shot showing the interaction with another animal and its context. So you're doing it as
thoroughly as that and delineating how they cross over and interact.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: Yes, that's correct.

Robyn Williams: And then you make notes...actually, what are the animals? Is it gorillas?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: They are, they're western lowland gorillas, and they're quite a
special group because they live in a biological family which means that there's one silverback
that's fathered all the children and all the females and mothers. So it is as close to a natural
wild family as you can get in captivity. And they are also semi-free-ranging, which means that
they're not just there for public viewing but that the habitat was made to mimic the wild habitat,
and you may or may not see them on any given day based on what the family is doing.

Robyn Williams: Where is this?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: This is at the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent, the John Aspinall
Foundation.

Robyn Williams: Oh John Aspinall, a wild character I seem to remember. He was a gambling colleague
of Kerry Packer's and one of these free enterprise merchants, wasn't he?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: That's right, a bit of a misanthrope as well.

Robyn Williams: There are many of us who love animals but are slightly leery about people.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: And I think he specifically was one of those characters, but he set up
an incredible foundation which now raises and nurtures endangered species in captivity with the
goal in a lot of cases to re-enter them back into the wild. And they do do this with the gorillas
as well, they've got a reserve in the Gabon called the Lefini Reserve and take the orphaned apes
and put them through a re-entry program back into the wild.

Robyn Williams: Yes, we've discussed that on The Science Show, mainly with chimps and the Jane
Goodall Institute. Now you've been looking at the gorillas' behaviour for some time, and so
systematically. What has it told you about the sophistication or otherwise of their interactions?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: The interesting thing that I've found to date (and there's much more
to be done) is that there is structure that hasn't been seen in previous or traditional studies of
animal behaviour. There is very, very systematic structure at a very low lying level that we've
completely neglected to see because we weren't investigating it from this broader approach.

Robyn Williams: So you're suggesting that their 'language' and their communication, there's an
awful lot going on there.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: There is an awful lot going on. I wouldn't call it language because I
wouldn't want to imply that they use the same sort of semantic and syntactic structure but I think
what I'm finding is that they're using combinations of signals more consistently than we had seen
before. And as this database of natural visual, tactile and auditory signals grows and grows, then
you are able to glean those consistent patterns within the same context, and that is giving you the
foundation there of the structure.

Robyn Williams: Have you any idea really what's going on with their communication, what they're...I
won't say 'saying', but what they're communicating? Is it stuff for the village, you know, 'go over
there, 'stop misbehaving', or 'share the food' or prosaic things like that, or something slightly
more profound?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: I think that's what everybody wants to know, but that is kind of
secondary to my actual research which is to find a way to actually collect the data in such a way
that we can analyse it without having to currently interpret it but to extract the hallmark
features, to extract the patterns. Personally I imagine that they're saying things that are very
similar to what we say. They're social creatures, they navigate very complex social networks and
hierarchies and they've got similar desires and intentions as human beings.

Robyn Williams: You're a very rigorous scientist, but how do you respond to other people taking it
differently, like Susan Savage-Rumbaugh in Georgia with Kanzi and the other bonobos where they've
become essentially part of the household and the communication is as if you've got a houseguest and
you just say, 'Kanzi, go and fetch the tongs so we can do something with the BBQ,' and off goes
Kanzi and fetches them, implying it understood perfectly what was being said, but an unpredictable
thing really. So what do you make of that?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: I think it's valid research, it's given us a lot of information about
the capacity of chimps and other great apes. It's a completely different line of research from what
I'm doing. I have to say, it is the research that got me interested initially in apes and
communication because I've always wanted to communicate with the animals, but it's looking more at
the apes' capacity for human language rather than looking at the precursors to human speech which
may have developed from things, as we know, that are more based in the visual system. So, visual
gesturing.

Robyn Williams: Yes, the same goes for the gorillas being taught more sophisticated...not sign
language but there were advances on...the kinds of techniques used with chimps have been applied to
gorillas more recently, that sort of thing as well.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: The symbolic representations and the keyboards and the symbols and so
forth. Yes, I think they have great intellectual capacity, so I've no doubt they're able to learn
and use these different methods. But again, it doesn't address how the modern human language has
evolved from the common ancestor that we shared over six million years ago, and I'm hoping to infer
some of those behaviours by looking at modern apes.

Robyn Williams: Having done this work meticulously for so long, what next?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: What next? Oh I've got just bucketfuls of data to go through and
continue growing this database. My hope for the near future is to get other scientists using this
methodology. But the next real critical step is to use it as a platform for comparative analysis
between humans and apes, particularly looking at preverbal children because they're going to be
using those social behaviours that are so critical to the normal development of language, and to
look at children who have language impairments because we know that these are the children who lack
the normal development of some of these social behaviours that would normally give them the ability
to acquire human language. And looking at all of this over a common scientific framework is going
to allow us to have a much better clue about what's going on here.

Robyn Williams: Yes, you even mentioned autistic children, didn't you.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: I did, and there is a pilot study kicking off at Birkbeck later this
month to look at a group of low functioning autistic children who don't have verbal skills and
looking at a group of age-matched, typical developing children to use this method that I've used
with the apes to look at those social behaviours.

Robyn Williams: Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester has been a Daphne Jackson fellow and is now at the
University of Sussex. The surprising trickiness of understanding communication.