Planet of the Apes is, for now, just fiction. Because monkeys, for one, can't talk, but recent scientific research has revealed that they might actually be able to talk, because they have the vocal tools necessary for intelligent speech—they just don't have the brain power. Or maybe they do, but they just don't want to.
Specifically, according to a recent article in the New York Times, they currently lack the right wiring. “A monkey’s vocal tract would be perfectly adequate to produce hundreds, thousands of words,” said cognitive scientist W. Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, who co-authored the new study.
The article explains that humans can speak before of a complex choreography involving flowing air and contracting muscles. So when we want to make certain sounds our vocal tracts turn into a particular shape. The vocal tracts of primates have the same elements as humans, from the vocal chords to even the lips, but they differ in geometry.
Looking at monkeys' vocal tracts scientists said, in theory, monkeys could make around five separate vowel sounds. “What you get are the vowels in ‘bit,’ ‘bet,’ ‘bat,’ ‘but’ and ‘bought,’” Dr. Fitch said.
Which begs the question of could they be genetically engineered to produce speech, and then overtake the planet and doom us all? Well, perhaps not. Because some scientists aren't convinced that monkeys could talk even if they had better brains.
While some believe that humans developed speech because at some point in our evolution we developed special brain circuits that allowed our ancestors babies' to learn new sounds, other scientists believe developing speech involved not just evolved brains but vocal tracts too.
"While monkeys may not have the full range of human vowels, Dr. Barney said, their repertoire is a very good starting place for speech." explains the New York Times article. "Still, she cautioned that the new study left important questions about speech unresolved. Vowels are important to speech, for example, but so are consonants. 'What they’ve shown is that monkeys are vowel-ready, not speech-ready,' Dr. Barney said."
You can learn more about W. Tecumseh Fitch ideas on the evolution of language in the talk below.