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I'm a bit confused. There seems to be an inference that baboons are apes, which they are not. Baboons are monkeys.

That said, there are many areas in South Africa where the very cleverness of baboons has made them a pest and a very real danger. Their two-inch canines and tendency to aggression when crossed (they can throw a tantrum that any toddler would be proud to achieve!).

Shortly emigrating from South Africa, I drove my boys out to a lookout point near Gordon's Bay in the western Cape, for a last look out over "home". There we were approached by a female baboon who was holding out her hands, begging, in much the same fashion as human beggars do. What was very unsettling was that her left hand was clasped around the wrist of her long dead baby. For a surreal moment I wondered if she was asking me to "fix" her baby. However, it is apparently not unknown for monkeys to carry their dead offspring around for some time before finally letting go of them. So one can safely say that the extent to which her actions were human, was limited to the begging posture, which was remarkable enough.

Thanks for the comment Karyn.

It certainly was not my intention to give the impression that baboons are apes/hominoids. There is an interesting section in the "Theory of Mind" chapter of Baboon Metaphysics, which relates to your dead offspring story:

"When an infant dies, a female baboon will often continue to carry the body for as many 10 or more days, cleaning the corpse of maggots and brushing flies away from it. As the corpse decays and mummifies, she begins to leave the body for increasing lengths of time before finally abandoning it. It is as if the mother continues to respond to the corpse as her infant even after it has lost all resemblance to a baboon. In the minds of other group members, the infant's status seems to change soon after it dies: they cease to treat it as an infant. They inspect the corpse with great curiosity, but they seldom attempt to handle it. ..... Even after the mother finally abandons the blackened, mummified corpse, the baboons continue to threaten any human who attempts to approach it. ..... What goes on in a baboon's mind as she carries her dead infant? ..... We will not attempt to suggest that baboons have a concept of death, or that the ruminate on the meaning to life. Nevertheless, baboons do seem to recognise that a corpse is something of a baboon manqué. Although not treated as as living baboon, it still seems to be regarded as something that belongs to a particular individual and family, and group members cooperate to defend the corpse. But much as we might be tempted to interpret the baboons' behaviour as empathy, it seems more likely that it simply reflects their "respect for ownership" - a reluctance to challenge an individual, or kin group, whose motivation to defend possession is high."

- Seb

My Christmas reading included Stephen Pinker's 'The stuff of thought: language as a window into human nature'. Pinker refers to the extraordinary development of Nicaraguan sign language after the Sandinista revolution of 1979.

No institutes for deaf children existed in Nicaragua before 1979 and sign language was unknown in the country. When a new centre for deaf children was set up the teachers knew no sign language and relied on fingering the spelling of Spanish words, which did not work well. After a few months the teachers noticed that the children seemed to be communicating in a new way. They had invented a pidgin sign language for themselves.

The story developed further when the second generation arrived and learned the pidgin sign language from the older children. These younger children, not exposed to the finger spelling, went on to develop a fully-formed sign language with syntax. This new language has since become standard in Nicaragua.

Pinker comments: "We've been able to see how it is that children — not adults — generate language".

For more on this look at the Wikipedia article on Nicaraguan sign language.

Can anyone think of a better 'proof' of the method now known as social constructivism?

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