Intelligence and Language
The creatures of Sesame Street are apparently unique in nature for their
linguistic abilities. Unlike just about every other animal, they
both speak and understand human language, conversing on levels approaching
I say apparently unique because on closer examination, there is both
more and less than meets the eye.
The Sesame creatures are not operating on adult human levels.
Big Bird, for instance, has been described as cognitively equivalent to
a six year old. Grover is arguably less sophisticated. Others
might be more. But on the whole, the Sesame Creatures display reasoning
capacities roughly on a par with children.
Well, not to put too fine a face on it, but some particularly smart
dogs have been classified as roughly equivalent to twelve year olds.
Apes, elephants, dolphins, certain breeds of monkeys, parrots and perhaps
even lines of felines have all demonstrated capacities for cognitive abilities,
problem solving, memory, sequencing and other reasoning skills that achieve
the same or better ranges than the Sesame Street monsters and their ilk.
Even the linguistic ability is not singular. The average
dog, its estimated, has a capacity to learn or be trained to a couple of
hundred commands or words. There was one dog with an understanding
vocabulary of four hundred words, and who understood grammar to the extent
that words in different orders would mean different things.
Studies with American sign language, or computer symbology indicate that
chimpanzees and gorillas could master and use vocabularies of several hundred
words. A parrot has been shown to use language conceptually, not
simply repeating words, but understanding that words have meanings and
using words to express its desires and feelings. Even the lowly
vervet monkey has been shown to have a vocabulary of words which express
or describe different animals, allowing them to distinguish threats.
So in that sense, there's nothing spectacularly unusual about the Mu-Pets.
The range of intelligence and linguistic comprehension that they display,
while remarkable and definitely at the high end, is found repeatedly within
the animal world.
But there's one way in which the Mu-Pets differ from their peers.
You can't shut them up.
The Sesame Monsters are actively linguistic, and this is an important
Chimps, for instance, can be taught American sign language, and can
communicate in this way. But the remarkable thing about films and
videos of signing chimps is how taciturn they are. Although they
can communicate, they generally don't feel motivated to do it.
In videos, we see trainers and teachers constantly coaxing and cajoling
them, trying to get them to speak. On their own, they do relatively
little signing, though they will use it to express wants and desires.
Although Chimps have linguistic capacity, they aren't actively linguistic.
They show no particular linguistic affinity or impulse in the wild.
Neither do gorillas. Wolves arguably have a similar linguistic
capacity to dogs, they have a range of vocalizations and highly organized
social and hunting behaviour, but they do not make the jump to language.
Parrots can learn to understand and use speech, but there's no indication
that wild parrots have any use for it.
There seems to be something missing in most animals that have high linguistic
capacity. Something that even a babbling child possesses.
A child has a language impulse, humans have language impulses. We
talk even when there's nothing to talk about and no one to talk to.
Beyond capacity, there must be a drive to use that capacity, and that's
Apart from man, alone of all the varieties of animals, the creatures
of Sesame Island have not only the capacity, but the impulse to use it.
Why is that?
Before we go into language, let's take a moment to examine the utility
and nature of intelligence. After all, the Sesame Monsters closest
evolutionary analogues are sloths and koalas. Each is a remarkable
creature in its own right, but neither are rocket scientists.
Why are the Sesame Monsters smart, and sloths not, what's going on?
Partly, it may be that the Sesame Monsters come from good breeding.
They're an offshoot of primates, an evolutionary line that was selecting
for intelligence. But even that is at best only a partial answer.
The Sesame Monsters are a shoot off the slow branch of that family tree.
And why are primates smart anyway?
What it comes down to is lifestyle. Most primates,
most monkeys and apes, are frugivores. That is, their main
diet is fruit.
This has its ups and downs. On the one hand, fruit is a
very high value, high energy diet. You get a lot of bang for the
buck. Your average grass eating herbivore has to consume constantly,
it has to eat huge quantities of grass and leaves, which are low value,
low energy diets.
On the other hand, grass and leaves can be found just about anywhere.
Fruit? That's a different story.
It's possible for a frugivore to starve to death in a forest, if there
are no fruit trees. Or it can starve to death if there are
no fruit trees in season while its hungry. Indeed, for a fruit
eater, most of a lush forest will be as sterile and inedible as a desert.
Its diet is highly specialized, and so 99% of the stuff in that environment
is useless to it.
This is where intelligence in monkeys and apes come in.
To be a successful frugivore, you need to know where the fruit trees are.
You can't just go around trying trees randomly, you might starve to death
before you find the right one. You need to be able to find
them, you need to be able to remember them, and you need to be able to
place them in reference to your environment so you can find them again.
That takes some pretty substantial mental mapping and requires a bit of
More than that, fruit trees tend to have a specific season.
Come to a tree too early and there's nothing but twigs and maybe blossoms.
Come a little later, and the fruit's started, but its not ripe.
Come too late, and its past its season, the fruit is gone or rotten.
So not only does our smart little monkey have to remember where that tree
is and how to find it, but he's got to be able to figure out what it's
got and when its in season. That requires a bit more
mental mapping, this time in a time dimension, or going by environmental
cues, which requires more brain power.
And of course, different kinds of fruit have different seasons.
Our smart little monkey has to eat year round. So not only
must he be able to find a free, and find it in season, but he's got to
do it with a lot of different kinds of fruit trees, and different ages
of trees in different locations, in order to build up a year round diet.
All of which calls for sophisticated mental processes. Memory,
positional mapping, inferences from environmental cues, time sorting, categorization,
making distinctions. Complicated stuff. The result
is that Monkeys have to be pretty smart. And Apes like Orangs,
Chimps and Gibbons, who are bigger and hungrier frugivores are smarter
When we look at parrots, we find that parrots are ecologically occupying
the same niches as monkeys. They're arboreal frugivores, and
they have to do the same tricks that monkeys do in order to find their
meal. The result is that parrots are among, if not the absolutely
smartest birds around.
So, turning to our Sesame Monsters, is this what is going on?
I think so. We've already determined from their mouth and jaw
structure, their body shape, that they are very specialized feeders.
A little bit more diverse than the average frugivore, in that their diet
probably contains more tender leaves and shoots. But it is
still highly specialized. So they need to develop the same
basic set of intellectual tools that monkeys and apes use.
Indeed, they're slow moving in comparison to monkeys and apes.
This means that moving from one place to another in search of food takes
longer and consumes more energy, so their risk factor is higher.
A monkey can scamper its heart out and search through dozens of trees in
the time it would take a Sesame Monster to explore two or three.
This is important, a Sesame Monster just doesn't have the time or spare
energy to be stupid, being a slow mover means he's got to be even smarter
about how and where to find food.
But the basic intelligence processing is the same. Indeed,
if we look at transcripts of Sesame Monsters speech, it is remarkable how
transparent it is. Sesame Monsters are almost obsessively focused
on the sorts of tasks or skill sets that a frugivore needs to find food
- They are fascinated with the difference between one thing and another,
with distinguishing objects from groups, they're obsessed with timing,
with location, with finding, with counting.
In the subjects that they talk about, the subjects that fascinate and
excite them, we find the blueprint for the skills and the intellectual
abilities that sustain their lifestyle in the wild. It's as
if it is hard wired into their neural structure.
This raises interesting questions. Are the Sesame Monsters
truly intelligent creatures, or are they biological robots, acting out
evolutionary programming hard-wired into their neural net.
They display various intellectual skills, but these skills, and the impulse
to use them, the drive to use them, seems to be based in evolution.
They love to count, they love to sort, they are excited to distinguish
objects not by choice, but because this is what their wiring compels.
Are they creatures of reason, or merely instinct?
For that matter, are we? As humans, we love to celebrate
our intelligence and free will. But looking at the Sesame Monsters,
whose unquestioned intelligence seems selected by and driven by instinct,
we have to wonder. We can look at these creatures mental tools
and see how clearly these tools are at the service of their biology.
But what about us. Are we fooling ourselves? Are
we, like the Sesame Monsters, merely creatures of instinct, our intelligence
merely a tool for hardwired biological drives.
There is no easy answer, only the dim mirror that the Sesame Monsters
hold up for us. In them, we see a diminished, smaller, simpler
version of ourselves. Perhaps we should not be so proud.
We may be closer to them than we would like.
Big Bird and Snuffelupagas
Big Bird is not a frugivore, or perhaps not solely one.
Yet Big Bird's intelligence seems roughly on a par with that of the Sesame
Why is he so smart?
I think that the answer must be because in many ways, Big Bird's evolution
is a parallel development. Like the primate frugivores, Big
Bird's diet is obviously highly specialized. Big Bird probably consumes
a number of items in his environment, but he's not a generalized feeder.
Rather, he feeds widely through narrow ranges. Frogs, fish,
certain kinds of invertebrates, certain kinds of plants, shoots, fruit,
etc. These foods are to be found scattered through a complex
environment, some may be intensely seasonal, some may require sophisticated
food gathering techniques and even cooperative behaviour.
The long and the short of it is that the Big Birds, like the Monkeys,
must make mental maps of their environment, they must be able to infer
from cues and clues, they must understand and use seasonality and timing.
And they must do this in an environment which is, in many ways, more complex
and diverse than the jungle canopies.
We've noted that parrots are the bird equivalent of monkeys.
The Big Birds are the bird equivalent of apes or hominids.
There are differences of course. For primates, its all about
finding the right tree, and then you eat like a king. For the
Big Birds, each day is an exercise in problem solving, finding a new basket
of foods. For the most part, the Big Birds do not make big
scores, they make lots of little scores. They likely increase
their chances by acting in groups, sharing information and feeding strategies,
even sharing finds.
Perhaps for this reason, transcripts of Big Bird conversations do not
show the obsessive joy in things like counting, distinguishing or sorting.
Sesame Monster conversations are usually ‘object directed,’ they want to
talk about things... objects, cookies, toys, and the nature and characteristics
of these things. These things excite them, it fascinates them,
they light right up.
In contrast, the conversation of Big Bird is not nearly so excitable.
Big Bird does talk about objects, he does count them, he makes distinctions
between categories, and shows all the same mental tools. But he doesn't
bring the same enthusiasm to them. Instead, Big Bird's conversation
is more relationship driven. He wants to talk to people
around him, rather than about things. He is excited by the
prospect of making friends or seeing friends, he focuses on being with
others, doing things with them. Big Bird survives in his environment
by focusing on relationships with others in that environment, exchanging
resources and information.
Thus, while evolution produces a comparable intelligence in Big Bird,
the orientation and directions of that intelligence seems quite distinct.
The big puzzle on Sesame Island, of course, is the Snuffleupagas.
Why is this animal intelligent?
Unlike the Big Birds and the Sesame Monsters, the Snuffleupagas is a
browser or grazer. The demands of finding food are simply not
as complex and do not require the same sorts of highly refined mental tools.
In one way, the answer is easier. We have to justify Sesame
Monster and Big Bird intelligence literally from the ground up, as these
animals represent their own evolutionary lines. On the other
hand, the Snuffleupagas is a relatively recent descendant of Mammoths and
Obviously, he gets his intelligence from his ancestors, the Mammoths.
But that begs the question of why Mammoths and Elephants are as smart as
they are. Certainly not from fear of predators, and certainly
not from the need to find food. Why are they smart.
Maybe simply because they're big? Big critters, big brains?
Possibly it's a fluke, the hyperdevelopment of their trunk with the immense
complexity of nerves and muscles triggered highly sophisticated brains
to handle it, much like acoustic sonar seems to have triggered brain complexity
in dolphins and whales.
One possible explanation for Elephant intelligence is social complexity.
These creatures are so huge that they're hard on their immediate environment.
A population can strip an area bare easily. They're so massive that
it is difficult to move easily from one area to another. At
the same time, at their size level, conflict is extremely dangerous.
It's all too easily, if you're an elephant, for things to get out of hand.
Remember, its all fun and games when someone loses an eye.
Elephants can't afford to let things get that far.
So possibly intelligence offers options to organize themselves socially
in order to minimize conflict, manage the group and the group relationships,
and cope with other groups.
Interestingly, transcripts of Snuffleupagas conversation betrays almost
no interest in the subjects that interest and excite Sesame Monsters.
Instead, Snuffleupagas speech is almost wholly social. But
it differs from Big Bird speech in that Big Bird's social speech is extroverted,
he is always interested in making a new friend, and meeting the friends
of friends. Snuffy's speech pattern and interests show almost
no extroversion, it seems that Big Bird's friendship is important to him,
but, as an example, he has little interest in extending his network or
meeting Big Bird's friends. For a protracted period, Snuffleupagas
had so little interest (though no particular sign of fear) that he would
simply wander off when the direct social bonding ended.
Towards a Theory of Monster
Okay, so we know why they're smart. But why do they talk?
And why do they seem so bent upon talking?
Sesame Monsters intelligence derives from the same evolutionary drivers
as Monkeys and Apes. But Monkeys and Apes, while they have linguistic
capacity, lack linguistic impulse. So what's the deal here.
A large part of it seems to be the subtle differences between Sesame
Monsters and Monkeys and Apes. As we've noted, Sesame Monsters
are slow moving primates. This poses all sorts of problems
For one thing, conflict and aggression are tricky. Most
animals, including monkeys and apes, employ aggression with each other,
and have a series of graduated stages by which aggression is expressed,
from threat display to outright conflict.
The environment and biology of Sesame Monsters pose unique difficulties.
For one thing, they're slow moving creatures in arboreal environments.
So they can simply move away from conflict. It's hard to sustain
a fight if one side or the other simply walks away. The
aggressor cannot force or attack, all they can do is pursue... At
a walk. So the attempt at aggression results in a protracted
low speed chase, clambering slowly from one branch to the next, around
and around and around. That's not particularly useful or efficient.
You can't drive a rival off a tree or away from a mate or establish dominance.
All you can do is go round in circles until you get tired.
The other thing is that these are relatively heavy arboreal creatures.
Falls can be easily fatal, or result in serious injury. So
the sort of close proximity where real aggression can take place, is far
more serious and dangerous than for other animals on the ground, or for
lighter agile animals in the trees.
The result is that aggression has almost no utility among Sesame Monsters.
It's largely futile and ineffective, and on rare occasions when it can
be effective, its so dangerous as to not be worth the risk.
The result is that aggression forms literally no part of the Sesame Monsters
biological repertoire. We see this even today on Sesame Street
itself, where the monsters, while curious and outgoing, display almost
no aggression towards humans or each other.
Okay, so they're pacifists. So what? Patience.
We're getting there.
Without aggression to manage their social relationships, the Sesame
Monsters still have to compete for food, resources and mates. They
still have to deal with each other. They still have to expend
time and energy moving from one food source to another, food sources which
may already be harvested or partially harvested.
As we've noted, remember that these are slow moving creatures.
So the relative energy and time investment in moving from one food source
to another is much greater than for monkeys and apes. They have less
room to make mistakes and fewer options to explore. The Sesame
Monsters need information about their environment, and complex information,
in order to make decisions as to where to go, what to do, and how long
This is where language comes in. Language is explicitly,
a conflict avoidance and resource exploitation strategy.
A Sesame Monster in a tree can determine, fairly accurately, without resort
to language, where the nearest fruit trees are, how to reach them, and
when they'll be in season. But he cannot determine, without language,
without going there, how bountiful the tree is, whether the season is early
or late or on time, whether it is harvested out or diseased, whether it
already has Sesame Monsters feeding, how many there are, how much can the
tree sustain, how rich or untapped it is, and how easy or difficult the
The only way a Sesame Monster can know this easily is if another Sesame
Monster tells him. With that information, a Sesame Monster
can decide, very quickly, whether to proceed to that tree, whether it is
still rich enough to support him, whether he should try another tree, and
which trees might have already been harvested. It allows complex
decisions to be made as to where to go and how to proceed.
Its in the interest of other Sesame Monsters to share this information.
If a tree has excess capacity, then a Sesame Monster cannot horde it...
The fruit will spoil eventually. So he has no interest in keeping
rivals or competitors away. Indeed, other animals represent
potential mates and potential sources of information.
If, on the other hand, the tree is already overpopulated, or already
harvested out, then a new animal joining the feeding will be a problem.
Under other circumstances, aggression might drive the interloper away,
or result in the original tree feeder being driven off. However aggression
isn't an effective option. Much better to be able to inform
the interloper as to the prospects, an interloper can then determine that
there's sufficient excess capacity to make joining the tree worthwhile.
Or can determine that despite being in season and being fecund, there's
Sharing or giving information reduces or eliminates potential conflict
and minimizes competition while maximizing social and mating opportunities.
Linguistic Impulse allows the individual Sesame Monsters to maximize
their feeding strategies, quickly allowing them to determine local resources
and population, and allowing more information to pursue long term feeding
strategies... i.e., the next tree, the one after that, and the one
For one animal to evolve a Linguistic Impulse on Sesame Island is amazing.
For three of them is little short of miraculous. What is going
We know that both elephants and parrots have linguistic capacity, if
not linguistic impulse. We can assume that the Snuffleupagas
inherits the linguistic capacity the same way he inherits intelligence
from his linguistic forbears.
The Big Birds have no place to inherit from. But comparing other
species, we can infer that the complex and richly textured environment,
the wide range of narrow foodstuffs, the need for nest building and egg
protection, the need for co-operative and complex feeding strategies, and
the need to teach those strategies, and the small but complex social groups
encourages both complex intelligence and linguistic capacity.
But why did these animals make the jump to speech? Why did
it allow them to make the jump from having the capacity to actually wanting
or needing to exercise that capacity? And why three unrelated
species in the same or overlapping time frames and to roughly the same
level of ability?
What we have here is a case of co-evolution. Co-evolution
is common in nature. In its simplest form, cheetahs encourage
the evolution of faster antelopes because the slower ones get eaten, and
antelopes encourage the evolution of faster cheetahs because the slower
But there are very complex forms of co-evolution as well.
Sharks and Remoras, Multi-species herds, symbiotic relationships.
The most remarkable example of co-evolution are bees and flowering plants.
Essentially, flowering plants and pollinating insects have evolved together,
each adapting to the other in furtherance of their goals. There
are certain flowering plants that may be pollinated only by a specific
species of insect.
Co-evolution takes place in an environment where two species overlap,
and where the adaptive pressures on one species helps to shape the other
species response. A species finds that the adaptations of another
species give it opportunities, and adapts further to exploit those opportunities.
So, how does language co-evolve on Sesame Island.
It goes back to the mass extinction on Sesame Island in which the proto-Snuffleupagas
came to the Island and in which many of the local indigenous species were
wiped out, along with the interlopers who would have normally moved into
those niches. The influx of predators, as we've noted, helped
to wipe out the local species, and then a hyper-population of predators
wiped out an incoming and inadequate population of interlopers, before
itself crashing to extinction.
What this means is that Sesame Island was inhabited by a handful of
survivor species in secure untouched niches, and that there were a whole
lot of new niches which were open and vacant.
Open niches invite occupation. The Big Birds began
to explore beyond their marshes, to rivers, grasslands, borderline rain
forests. The Sesame Monsters began to explore beyond their
core habitats. Even the Snuffleuagas broadened their niches.
This meant that the Big Birds and the Sesame Monsters were frequently overlapping,
and indeed, were often overlapping in niches or habitats that were relatively
poor for them and required active intelligence to exploit effectively.
The Big Birds, moving into a series of strange environments which they
needed to actively observe and understand the resources available discovered
in Sesame Monsters a series of little walking databases of useful information.
Obviously they were intelligent enough to teach each other feeding and
behaviour strategies, which means that they were intelligent enough to
learn by observation. So they were capable of learning from observing
Sesame Monsters, and eventually, found substantial advantages in being
able to decode the Sesame Monsters. It was probably a long
adaptive process, first appreciating different kinds of signals, and then
increasingly refining meaning from these signals. But in the
end, the information as to foods, locations, distances and other issues
could be quite useful.
The ability to communicate with or talk to Sesame Monsters increased
the ability to gain useful information from them. For their
part, the Sesame Monsters also found a competitive advantage in being able
to talk to and obtain information from the Big Birds. It exposed
them to a wider variety of food sources and food source techniques in more
The Snuffleupagas in their widening niches, and in contact with both
Big Birds and Snuffleupagas were also brought along. They too
found an adaptive advantage to being able to decode the conversations going
on around them.
Of course, the Snuffleupagas were more conservative in their exploration
of niches. Perhaps for this reason, they seem to have co-evolved
the least linguistic impulse. For Snuffleupagas information
from Sesame Monsters as to the quality and distribution of fruit trees,
while useful for occasional feeding under trees, was not vital. Information
exchange as to habitats or resources simply did not confer the same scale
of benefit. Social information exchange with the Big Birds
was more valuable, but the two species, while their habitats might overlap,
were not competing for or sharing many food resources.
Perhaps for this reason, the Snuffleupagas linguistic impulse seems
less pronounced than in the two other species. Examining transcripts
of Snuffleupagas speech and comparing them to Big Bird or Sesame Monster
speech, we find that the Snuffleupagas employ fewer words, they speak with
simpler syntax, they are less voluntary or impulsive with speech, they
speak less often. Snuffleupagas display little of the enthusiasm
for speech shown by Big Birds or Sesame Monsters, and almost none of the
obsessional excitement of Sesame Monsters. Nevertheless, the
fact that they have linguistic impulse to any degree remains remarkable.
The question arises as to why, if the three Sesame Island species could
evolve and co-evolve speech, then why hasn't a similar phenomena occurred
in respect of man. We are after all sophisticated language
users and we have relationships with many species with linguistic capacity.
Why don't elephants talk to Mahouts, dogs converse with their masters,
why haven't the wild orangutangs or chimps which coexist with aboriginal
humans not picked up even rudimentary communication. It would
be a great advantage for Orangs or Chimps to be able to communicate with
humans, if for no other reason than to reduce hunting and increase scavenging
There seem to be two answers to this question. One is that
the linguistic impulse and linguistic capacity of humans so far outstrips
the animals around us that there's just no catching up. Our
linguistic use is so complex and wide ranging, and other animals abilities
are so limited in comparison, that there is no real advantage.
Our signal to noise ratio is simply far too lopsided, too much of what
we say is too complex and too irrelevant, the potential useful information
is too hard to fish out.
In contrast, it appears that the Sesame Monsters, Big Birds and Snuffleupagas
were all fairly close to the same level. The linguistic gulf
was not so huge as to be unbridgeable, and there were immediate advantages
to even minimal bridging.
The other answer is simply that there hasn't been time.
We can identify the period of linguistic co-evolution as sometime after
the land bridge to Sesame Island, the colonization by Southern Mammoths,
the introduction of predators and mass extinction, the closure of
the land bridge and the subsequent expansion into vacant niches.
We don't know when exactly this happened. But we do know
that the Southern Mammoth, the progenitor species for the Snuffleupagas,
existed between four and one million years ago. So we know
that the Sesame Species had at least several hundred thousand years, and
perhaps as long as a few million years to co-evolve language.
Compare this to humanity. Our species, Homo Sapiens Sapiens
is only a hundred thousand years old. Related species might
push us back a million tops, but we have no idea how far back our language
Of species hanging around with us, the earliest were dogs, who have
only been associated with humans for somewhere between 40,000 and 15,000
years. Most other species (most of them without linguistic
capacity) have only been domesticated within the last twelve thousand years.
Elephant domestication is almost certainly less than 5000 years old.
So in this sense, there's been almost no time to co-evolve language.
Despite this, there does seem to be some indication of language co-evolution
in early stages. Recent studies have shown that Dogs seem to
have slightly more linguistic capacity than Wolves. While it
is difficult to make statistical comparisons, dogs seem to show a larger
innate capacity for vocabulary or commands than wolves, and more aptitude
for understanding sequence in that vocabulary (sequence of course, being
the key component of grammar - the notion that the order of words affects
their meaning - itself a key component of language). One interesting
datum suggests that there might be something significant going on:
If you point at something, a dog will look at what you are pointing at.
A wolf won't, the gesture is meaningless to it. So who knows,
perhaps in another fifty or a hundred thousand years of association, dogs
may themselves become a linguistic species. And perhaps within
that time frame, or sometime after that, elephants if they survive, may
join the club.
In the meantime, we share our world with three species remarkably gifted
with the ability to talk to us. That they are not on our level
does not reduce the importance and significance of these gifts.
In these creatures we see our reflection, the differences between us fade
away before the common heritage that we share in inhabiting this small
world together. The gulf between them and us is merely one
of degree rather than nature, and the gulf between them and the rest of
the natural world is again, a simple matter of degrees. Through
them we understand that we are a part of this world, their world, our world,
and not above it. Our superiority does not separate us,
but rather, allows us to appreciate and understand our responsibility for
these, our kindred children of Earth.