“Can pigeons read?” is the question asked at the beginning of this old video, aimed at illustrating techniques to teach animals complex discriminations by rewarding them for correct choices but not for incorrect ones.
These techniques, developed around 1930, have been used in a study teaching baboons to recognize English words from non-words. Soberly entitled “Orthographic processing in baboons,” the study has been often headlined “Baboons can read,” even by the very journal who published it. My colleague Johan Lind was delighted to hear the news: “If they can read, then I can write to them and ask about animal intelligence.” Unfortunately, the only thing the baboons would be able to tell Johan is which combinations of letters are more likely to appear in English words, which is what they learned by receiving food anytime they correctly identified four-letter sequences as an English word or a non-word.
The study actually demonstrates that you do not need to know language to tell words from non-words. All languages have a statistical signature, whereby some combinations of sounds (and, therefore, letters) are common, and others are rare. Baboons are smart enough, and see well enough, to learn this. I would not be surprised if pigeons could do it too, given that they can, for example, discriminate paintings by different artists, presumably learning something about the artists’ “visual grammar.” Pigeons can also associate different written words with different actions, as the video above shows. All this suggests that the evolutionary origin of our ability to read is even more ancient than “reading” baboons suggest, pigeons being separated from humans by some 150 million years of independent evolution. Analyzing the structure of visual stimuli is a natural task for many animals, and I do not think the key to understanding human uniqueness lies here.