Could we breed gorillas to talk?

17 May 2016

Question

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?

Answer

Kate Storrs pondered the possibilities of this question...

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 don't seem to have ever grasped grammar and syntax, or had that kind of vocabulary explosion that human children do. So there's 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 time.

Chris - Longer than the grant you'd probably get funded for, that's true.

Kate - That's about 5,000 gorilla generations. If you go back 5,000 human generations, you go back about 100,000 years. We're mostly in Africa, we're still interbreeding with neanderthals, it's before the great kind of cultural explosion. A lot can happen in 50,000 years. With selective breeding, I'm going to go with yes!

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