In another study that has to make a pragmatic person once again rethink his or her place in the biological scheme of things, cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna have found that squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) have an ability similar to yours and mine to detect “simple structural and melodic patterns” in what we call language. The scientists involved, led by Andrea Ravignani, a PhD candidate (this should put him over the top), call this “language musicality.”
In an attempt to clarify what they’re working on, Science Daily provides the following example: “the perceived musicality of some languages results from dependency relations between vowels within a word…try it yourself: ‘gullar’ requires more movement and does not sound as good as ‘guller.’” Put the requisite two dots above the letter “u” in those words and let me know if you agree. Seems incredibly subtle, but squirrel monkeys can tell. Impressive.
So if they can work that sort of magic, it’s possible they’ve been listening in on conversations in every language man has developed. I don’t know about you, but I can think of several occasions where I’ve been indiscrete with squirrel monkeys nearby. Who knew?
Worse yet is the possibility that they might end up composing music. The researchers designed “a sort of musical system for monkeys” and measured their grasp of what was going on. No problem. In a chilling conclusion, Ravignani says “mastering basic phonological patterns and syntactic rules is not an issue for squirrel monkeys: the bar for human uniqueness has to be raised.”
This is not the first warning but seems to be the most dire so far. In 2012 Honing and others reported in PLoS One that “Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) detect rhythmic groups in music, but not the beat.” Still, it’s a start, and a look around any dance floor loaded with humans will demonstrate how not getting the beat isn’t unique to monkeys.
It’s possible that the inability to detect the beat is based more on their taste in general than on anything genetic. According to an article in Cognition from 2007 by McDermott and Hauser, “Nonhuman primates prefer slow tempos but dislike music overall.” Here we learn very little about cotton-top tamarins and marmosets, two more of our close cousins. Other than their tempo preference, we are not told what genre of music they were subjected to, or whether it was merely electronically generated music-like sounds, popular in acoustic labs.
It may very well be that in tuning into our conversations and probably our radio stations over the last few decades, whatever enjoyment other simians might have taken from listening to music of all kinds was just erased. Why? Possibly be due to resentment over the license taken by humans in taking the names of simians and inserting them into songs and even into band names without permission. It’s hard enough to find a good intellectual property attorney if you’re of the human persuasion, so just imagine what it must be like for a marmoset with a good claim.
Consider some of these tunes, which I’m sure we’re all familiar with:
Shake That Monkey by Too Short
Punish the Monkey… Dave Mathews Band (shaking’s not punishment?)
Shock the Monkey…Peter Gabriel (really, enough is enough)
Monkey Man…Amy Winehouse
Monkey Man…Toots and the Maytals (the original, if you’re shopping)
Tweeter and the Monkey Man…Traveling Wilburys
Lab Monkey…Alice in Chains (sure, rub it in)
Code Monkey…Jonathan Coulton (NSA? Anything you’d like to tell us?)
Too Much Monkey Business…Chuck Berry
Super Karate Monkey Death Car…BUMP (sadly a lot more guitar than screeching brakes)
Chimp Gut…Charlie Hunter Trio
Chimp & Flower…Garage A Trois (drugs had to be involved here)
Or…these groups (all human):
Chimp Spanner (like the song Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters, possibly only tool-related)
The Space Chimps
…almost forgot: The Monkees (hey! hey! we’re the….)
Take a (another?) look at Rise of the Planet of the Apes and, based on the above, add one more reason why they were very unhappy with our species. Only a movie…so far.