Science Questions

Could we breed gorillas to talk?

Tue, 17th May 2016

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Donald Piniach asked:

Apparently a gorilla was taught sign language. Could selective breeding over 50000 years produce a sophisticated language in gorillas, and perhaps accentuated abstract and artistic intelligence?


Kate Storrs pondered the possibilities of this question...Western Gorilla

Kate - I love this question. If Donald would like to get in touch I think we should start writing the grant application!

Certainly people have taught great apes how to use sign language and how to use pictographic keyboards. They communicate can quite well in simple sentences but donít seem to have ever grasped grammar and syntax, or had that kind of vocabulary explosion that human children do. So thereís clearly something missing in the non-human primate brain at the moment.

Donald said in his question: if you gave 50,000 years to do the selectively breeding programme, which is a very, very long timeÖ

Chris - Longer than the grant youíd probably get funded for, thatís true.

Kate - Thatís about 5,000 gorilla generations. If you go back 5,000 human generations, you go back about 100,000 years. Weíre mostly in Africa, weíre still interbreeding with neanderthals, itís before the great kind of cultural explosion. A lot can happen in 50,000 years. With selective breeding, Iím going to go with yes!


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Or we could breed humans intelligent enough to understand gorilla language as it is?

Selective breeding in animals has lead to all sorts of undesirable and lethal genetic traits over time, due to the focus of selection being on those small number of "desirable" ones and the subsequent bottleneck effect on other genes. Just look at pug dogs and Scottish fold cats.

In order for selective breeding to work, you would also need to breed the "selected" ones in excess of the "non-selected" ones. Or kill off the ones you don't like, so that they can't breed... Hmm.

On the other hand, there are probably few gorillas that lack the intelligence to learn such as thing, so you would really be selecting for "willingness" rather than inherent "ability". And if all animals are equally "able" then you wouldn't end up applying any sort of selection pressure, and no effective change to the population would occur. SquarishTriangle, Sat, 23rd Apr 2016

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