French researchers have discovered that baboons can read four-letter English words without understanding their meaning. Researchers provided the animals with touch-sensitive computer screens that display real English words along with non-word letter combinations, and that reward the baboons that when they are able to pick out real words from a 7038-word list of fake words consisting of random letter combinations.
The test demonstrates that baboons can easily master a critical first step in learning to read: identifying recurring patterns in text. “They are using information about letters and the relation between letters to perform the task without any kind of linguistic training,” said Jonathan Grainger, a psychologist at the French Center for National Research and at Aix-Marseille University in France who was the study’s first author.
The best proto-reader is Baboon Dan. who can guess when words are truly words about 80 percent of the time, and has mastered 308 four-letter English words.( French researchers used English since it is “the language of science” and also popular on YouTube.)
“Detailed analysis revealed that the baboons were not simply memorizing the word… but had learned to discriminate words from non-words on the basis of “the statistical properties that distinguish words from non-words,” said Grainger. The baboons learned that certain letter combinations meant a real word and certain combinations a fake.
“The key is that these animals not only learned by trial and error which letter combinations were correct, but they also noticed which letters tend to go together to form real words, such as ‘SH’ but not ‘FX,’” said Grainger. So even when new words were sprung on them, they did a better job at figuring out which were real,
So this proves that the shapes designed by really smart primates to represent sound and meaning are easily categorized by not-so- smart primates. Which figures, since reading has spread like wildfire (in evolutionary terms) among human populations, since no genetic modifications necessary when humans first mastered this skill.
The ease with which baboons learned to recognize letter shapes and combinations also suggests that all primates are pre-adapted for reading, even those that lack language.
In the primate intelligence department, the Guinea baboons (Papio papio) used in the experiment are not exactly rocket scientists. When it comes to brains, baboons are considered, well, baboons. Which proves that at least as far as reading first steps, reading is so easy even a cave man can do it.