Apes don’t ask questions
The ability to ask questions could be the crucial cognitive threshold between human and other ape mental abilities
Since the 1970s it has been suggested that apes cannot ask questions, and are unable to give negative answers. Apes that have been taught sign language are able to answer human questions, and their vocabulary does contain questions words.
But despite these abilities, there has been no recorded case in scientific literature of an ape asking a question. In human-primate conversations, questions are exclusively asked by the humans.
In a 1972 experiment, Ann James Premack and David Premack designed a potentially promising methodology to teach apes to ask questions: “In principle interrogation can be taught either by removing an element from a familiar situation in the animal’s world or by removing the element from a language that maps the animal’s world. It is probable that one can induce questions by purposefully removing key elements from a familiar situation. Suppose a chimpanzee received its daily ration of food at a specific time and place, and then one day the food was not there. A chimpanzee trained in the interrogative might inquire ‘Where is my food?’ or, in Sarah’s case, ‘My food is?’. Though the ape understood the question, she did not herself ask any questions — unlike the child who asks interminable questions, such as What that? Who making noise? When Daddy come home? Me go Granny’s house? Where puppy? Toy? Sarah never delayed the departure of her trainer after her lessons by asking where the trainer was going, when she was returning, or anything else”.
Joseph Jordania suggested that the ability to ask questions could be the crucial cognitive threshold between human and other ape mental abilities. Jordania suggested that asking questions is not a matter of the ability to use syntactic structures, that it is primarily a matter of cognitive ability.