Baboons Can Recognize Words (But Won't Read My Blog)

Baboon taking part in word recognition test

If I were learning to read for the first time there are a few four-letter words I'd be especially interested in understanding, so I suppose it makes sense that scientists studying baboons' reading capabilities would start there.

Researchers in France discovered our hairy genetic cousins can recognize hundreds of four-letter words on a computer screen, and they can tell a real word apart from a nonsense jumble of letters, according to a study published in the journal Science.

That's an important skill if baboons evolve to a level of sophistication that would require clearing their inboxes of foreign spam.   But for these baboons it was simply about food.  Every time they tapped the right icon identifying whether the letters on the screen were a real word or just gobbledygook, they got a treat.

The baboons, however, are only spotting sequences of letters so they can get fed.  They don't actually understand what the words mean.

"The baboons use information about letters and the relations between letters in order to perform our task… This is based on a very basic ability to identify everyday objects in the environment," Dr. John Grainger at the Aix-Marseille University told BBC Nature.

In other words, any monkey can recognize that something is a word, but not every primate can be literate.  Still, the researchers say they are "excited" about the results of their study.  Going into it, they didn't know if the six Guinea baboons would be able to pull it off.  Dan the Baboon will never appreciate Dr. Seuss, but it's still pretty impressive that he can recognize more than 300 words.

And with further study we might learn something more from them about how humans first learned to read.  Plus, it's just so cute to see a monkey working at a computer.