A long-standing debate concerns whether humans are specialized for speech perception ; in the the second half of the nineteenth century, two of the primary figures in this debate were Charles Darwin and Friedrich Max Müller.
A distinguished scholar and one of the leading figures of Victorian cultural life, Müller stated that language was a “Rubicon” between man and brute. Müller specifically attacked the ideas Darwin had formulated about languages in the Descent of Man, where Darwin had rejected Müller’s ideas about Man’s special place in evolution. The difference of opinion led to a series of letters between the two men of science.
The recent findings of an experiment published in the journal Current Biology could, however, prove to be further evidence that Darwin was right.
Some researchers argue that the capacity for language acquisition is demonstrated by the ability to understand synthetic speech, incomplete or distorted spoken words. Lisa Heimbauer and her colleagues Michael Beran and Michael Owren, from Georgia State University in Atlanta tested a chimpanzee, which had been raised by humans and spoken to as if she were human, to find out whether she too could recognise incomplete or distorted spoken words. The talented chimp, named Panzee, recognised degraded spoken words far more often than should have been the case by chance, providing evidence that our common ancestor would have had the ability to perceive speech.
So has the Rubicon been crossed?
Sources: Lisa A. Heimbauer, Michael J. Beran and Michael J. Owren, A Chimpanzee Recognizes Synthetic Speech with Significantly Reduced Acoustic Cues to Phonetic Content, Current Biology, Available online 30 June 2011. Matt Walker Editor, BBC Nature, “Chimp recognises synthetic speech” http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/14045206