Rise of the Apes via Miracle Grow

This is a Freakonomics guest post by Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist, and Director of Human Cognition at 2AI. His new book Harnessed explores the evolutionary origins of language and music.

Rise of the Apes via Miracle Grow
By Mark Changizi

Add Miracle Grow to your tomato plants and you get tomatoes. Big tomatoes, but still tomatoes. What you don’t get are mobile, blood-thirsty tomatoes with a deep distaste for the classic tune, “Puberty Love.” That would require serious evolutionary design, something far more complex than Miracle Grow can handle.


Yet something very much like Miracle Grow works for giving chimps and gorillas human-level intelligence. Or, at least, that’s what you’d have to believe to accept the premise of the summer movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where a grow-more-neurons drug aimed for Alzheimers is given to apes, who thereby become the cognitive equal of humans, replete with language.

Obviously, that can’t happen. Our human brain is not simply a bigger version of the same fundamental ape design. Rather, it possesses essential new software forged over millions of years of natural selection. Some believe there is new language software, a language instinct; while others believe, in contrast, that what’s new are general-purpose algorithms of the kind artificial intelligence researchers seek. A simple give-‘em-more-neurons mechanism can’t reproduce these sorts of designs.

And so, for those of us inclined to get testy about the science in movies, Rise of the Planet of the Apes stands on scientific quicksand.

Or does it?

As if timed for co-release, my new book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, hit bookstores the same week that Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit theaters. My book is about the first rise of the planet of the apes – how those Homo sapiens apes became the humans we take ourselves to be today – and it implicitly provides a scientific justification for the fictional next rise in the movie. In my view, based on my research, Miracle Grow is all you need to turn our “lower” cousins into our equals.

In Harnessed I argue that the qualitative difference between us and the other apes isn’t in our brains or genes. Instead, it’s all in culture. Our Homo sapiens ancestors had at one time no language or arts, despite having our brains and genomes. But at some point, a new kind of design-by-evolution got under way: cultural evolution.

Cultural selection can create brilliantly designed artifacts, designed for our minds. And it can do so at much faster time scales than natural selection.

Writing, speech and music – the core artifacts underlying much of what we believe qualitatively differentiates us from our ape relatives – have culturally evolved to have shapes that the brain is good at processing. These cultural artifacts harness us. Or, as eminent scientist and author of Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene says, culture engages in “neuronal recycling.”

What’s new about my research and book is that I have a specific theory about culture’s special trick for harnessing us. I call it “nature-harnessing” – the core artifacts of writing, speech and music have come to be shaped like fundamental aspects of nature, just the sort of stimulus structure the ancient illiterate, non-language, amusical ape brain is brilliantly able to process.

How does one show that writing, speech and music are structured “like nature”? And, what could that even mean?

The strategy is to identify regularities in the structure of natural stimuli, and show that we find the same regularities in the structure of the cultural artifacts that harness the brain regions for those natural stimuli.

So, how can we read? Terrestrial worlds like ours are populated with opaque objects strewn about in three-dimensional space. One can work out that certain conglomerations of contours happen in such worlds, and other conglomerations do not. Question is: does writing across humankind glom onto these worldly conglomerations? The answer is, Yes – something I found by examining more than one hundred writing systems over history.

And we comprehend speech because, I argue, speech has been culturally selected to sound like the most fundamental sounds in terrestrial habitats – solid-object events. The “grammar” found among the hits, slides, and rings of solid-object events is found among the plosives (like b, t), fricatives (like f, v) and sonorants (like vowels, and phonemes like y, w, r, l) of speech.

Finally, I argue that music has the signature structure found in the sounds that people make when they move and carry out expressive bodily behaviors. The rhythm, melody, and loudness regularities of music are found in the gait, Doppler-shifts, and distance modulations of the human movers around you in the world. The sounds we make when we move have a tremendous amount of structure, and I’ve provided case after case where this signature structure is also found in music. Music is a fictional story of a person moving expressively in your midst, which is why music is evocative; but speech sounds are not. (In this light, dance is simply a case where you are moving with this fictional mover. That is, why should an auditory stimulus possibly evoke a drive to move in time to it? Because the stimulus is the sound of movement – the sound of the “dance” itself.)

Thus, in the framework I defend in Harnessed, the real code that matters in explaining who we humans are today is not the genome or the neural code, but the nature-mimicking code that has been hiding all along within the structure of our most dear artifacts.

And it follows that the solid-object event sounds of human speech harness chimp and gorilla ears as well. Our writing, too, harnesses their visual object-recognition system.

On the comprehension side then, all the apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes need in order to process human language is quantitatively more brain power, a role filled by the fictional Alzheimer drug. Giving them more neurons suffices!

And now you are prepared to enjoy the movie, science-nagger-free.

Mike B

While you are correct that the human brain is basically an ape model OS (or even a mammal model OS) with a larger super computer attached, there are subtle yet important neurological differences between Chimps and man. The most important of these is that we have a much better degree of impulse control. When male apes run into another they'll try to rip the intruder's face and genitals off. Humans on the other hand are actually able to work together across breeding boundaries without automatic violence. That and other small changes lead to the giant leap in apparent cognition seen between humans, apes and other mammalian creatures. Yes we are built with the same neural components of our forebears, but that is like assuming that a 1960's computer is nothing more than a slower version of a modern one just because they both use an 8-bit byte. Watch Project Nim and see what happens when you try to raise an ape like a human. They may be as intelligent as a 4 or 5 year old human in some respects, but in many critical social areas they are completely inept because they simply lack the proper firmware to achieve human level social skills.



What conclusions can we draw from the elements of culture found among chimpanzees and orangutans? For example –

- Some groups hold onto overhead branches when grooming their neighbors; some hand onto each other’s hands over their heads.

- Some use leaves as protective gloves or napkins; other don’t.

- Some use sticks to poke holes to get insects, or to pry seeds from fruit, or to smash fruit; some don’t.

- Some use leafy branches as flyswatters, or to gather water; some don’t.

- Some engage in the sport of “sag-riding”; some don’t.

- Some use their hands or leaves to amplify the sound they make when bedding down for the night, or expressing annoyance; some don’t.


I enjoyed your book. The only criticism I have of this post - not the book - is that you distinguish between natural selection and this process when they are in fact the same thing applied in different areas. The same "force" acting on biological development does take longer.


Way to ruin the magic of the movie for me.

Ian M

What did you expect?
Being able to enjoy movies of this calibre requires suspension of disbelief.


"The sounds we make when we move have a tremendous amount of structure, and I’ve provided case after case where this signature structure is also found in music."

One of my favourite musical experiences is when I'm walking fast with energetic music pounding in my earphones at exactly the same beat of my pace. Cool :)


How does this stand against Chomsky's "Language Acquisition Device"? What you describe here smells very much like a _blank slate_, which Pinker eviscerated quite effectively in a book of that name.

The simplest and most convincing argument IMO against a wholy cultural construction of language is that kids' typical grammatical mistakes are not congruent with the idea that they are just repeating sound bites. They clearly underline an (incorrect) understanding of the grammar.

Michelange Baudoux

Thanks for sharing your work and views. The idea you present has quite an original and convincing edge : culture is the direct consequence of an ape's life as perceived though an ape's senses, when given more brain capacity, rather than the product of specific genome design.

You should take into account that this process has been extensively described by a great deal of european anthropologists in the eighties, Edgard Morin being the one who made the most aknowledged synthesis of this current of thought (now we don't have the Christian politics over here and the "intelligent design" trauma to overcome, so we don't care as much as you do).

Furthermore, describing those two aspects (contextual interaction and brain capacity) is missing the most mysterious point : what incentive did we receive, during hominization, in order to reproduce the sounds and visions of our environment?

Today's apes ain't. They just imitate each other, and they don't dance, sing or draw.

So we have the detonator (contextual interaction), and the tons of semtex (brain capacity) but what incentive did pull the trigger in the first place. If we don't answer this to start with, the whole theory you present would leave us with the Rise of the Planet of the Parrots, right?

Morin adds a third element : the hand, coupled with the tool, that might have been a direct survival incentive (better fighters) and become a differentiator. As long as apes have the ability to learn such behaviors (but not to dance, read or play music in the sense we do) it is most probable that the use of tools that pulled the trigger.

"2001, a Space Oddyssey" (which did acheive, as a movie, a different kind of popularity) has the most stunning metaphor ever for this. Check it again here :

In reality, the process of using tools has been way more progressive than what Clarke and Kubrick depicted: the use of tools for extracting food from nuts, which is present in today's animal behavior, has been most probably a lot anterior to using tools for hunt.

What I can't explain to myself, though, is why our society tends to forget fully published and satisfying theories and rediscover them and republish them. Please tell me that I have neglected an old and fully satisfying pre-existing theory for that, which proposes applicable solutions I should have heard of...


Mark Changizi

Thanks all for the great comments!

On Pinker's blank-slate, note that my "nature-harnessing" hypothesis is definitely *not* a blank-slate one. Rather, it agrees with Pinker to the extent that both of our views posit that we have fairly inflexible brains filled with instincts. The difference is that I'm suggesting that none of these instincts are for language (or music or reading). Instead, culture evolved to shape the sounds of spoken language so that it fit instincts we *do* have, namely for processing the sounds of solid-object physical event sounds. The result will be that we *seem* to have a language instinct.