Monkey see, monkey write.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Dan the baboon sits in front of a computer screen. The letters BRRU pop up. With a quick and almost dismissive tap, the monkey signals it’s not a word. Correct. Next comes, ITCS. Again, not a word. Finally KITE comes up.
He pauses and hits a green oval to show it’s a word. In the space of just a few seconds, Dan has demonstrated a mastery of what some experts say is a form of pre-reading and walks away rewarded with a treat of dried wheat.
Dan is part of new research that shows baboons are able to pick up the first step in reading — identifying recurring patterns and determining which four-letter combinations are words and which are just gobbledygook.
The study shows that reading’s early steps are far more instinctive than scientists first thought and it also indicates that non-human primates may be smarter than we give them credit for.
“They’ve got the hang of this thing,” said Jonathan Grainger, a French scientist and lead author of the research.
Baboons and other monkeys are good pattern finders and what they are doing may be what we first do in recognizing words.
It’s still a far cry from real reading. They don’t understand what these words mean, and are just breaking them down into parts, said Grainger, a cognitive psychologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France.
In 300,000 tests, the six baboons distinguished between real and fake words about three-out-of-four times, according to the study published in Thursday’s journal Science.
The 4-year-old Dan, the star of the bunch and about the equivalent age of a human teenager, got 80 percent of the words right and learned 308 four-letter words.
Next step: Dan starts a blog and posts pictures of his cat playing the piano. Then a twitter feed. Then he’ll be on Animal Planet as a special correspondent. Next stop, Hollywood where he’ll write his first movie, date a starlet (Cheetah’s granddaughter, perhaps) make a couple of sequels that bomb, and end up at Betty Ford.
Walk away from the computer now, Dan.