Aping Language: A Skeptical Analysis of the Evidence for Nonhuman Primate Language

By Wynne, Clive | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Aping Language: A Skeptical Analysis of the Evidence for Nonhuman Primate Language


Wynne, Clive, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


OCTOBER 30TH SAW THE DEATH OF AN individual who had made a greater contribution to science than she ever knew. Washoe, a forty-two year old female chimpanzee, was the first member of another species to converse with a human being. When this result was published, in August 1969, the results marked as giant a leap for humankind as the first moon landing a month earlier. Allen and Beatrice Gardner of the University of Nevada reported that Washoe, who lived in a trailer in their backyard, had a vocabulary of over one hundred words that she used to effectively communicate with her caregivers.

Centuries earlier, the French philosopher Rene Descartes observed that, "it is very remarkable that there are none so depraved and stupid, without even excepting idiots, that they cannot arrange different words together, forming of them a statement by which they make known their thoughts; while, on the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect and fortunately circumstanced it may be, which can do the same." (2) Descartes' opinion had survived three centuries unthreatened by possible contradiction. Until Washoe, every speaking beast had been shown to be just a circus trick. Parrots might be trained to repeat certain phrases, but they had no understanding of what they were saying. Dogs could respond to commands, but they had no grasp of grammar.

But Washoe was the real McCoy. She didn't just respond to rote commands, she could correctly react to novel combinations of words. And she created her own little sentences like gimme sweet, come open, and listen dog. (3) Taken out on a lake, Washoe saw a swan for the first time and signed water bird for this unfamiliar creature.

Many had tried to communicate with chimpanzees before--but none had got very far. Before the Gardners, the record for chimpanzee communication was just three words--Mama, Papa, and Cup--recorded in the early 1950s. (4) These attempts had attracted a lot of public attention and even inspired one of Ronald Reagan's better movies, Bedtime for Bonzo. (Reagan later joked "I'm the one with the watch.") But they had only reinforced Descartes' conclusions about nonhuman linguistic possibilities.

The Gardners succeeded where so many before them had failed because they had the brilliant insight to teach Washoe to use her hands to communicate instead of her vocal chords. Many early observers of chimps had noted how much more facile they were with their hands and feet than with their voices, but none before the Gardners had thought to use this as a way to teach them language. The Gardners trained Washoe in the sign language used by the deaf in North America: ASL (American Sign language).

ASL is a complete human language. Though a few signs are fairly clear pantomimes of the actions they imply, most are as incomprehensible to the uninitiated as the sounds in an unfamiliar spoken language. ASL also has its own grammar and syntax.

Washoe inspired legions of imitators. By the early 1970s there were about two dozen apes in language training: one even made it onto The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. (5) Francine (Penny) Patterson, at the time a graduate student at Stanford University, became the first to train a gorilla in sign language. Duane Rumbaugh at Emory University developed a communication system in which the apes had to press keys with patterns on them to express themselves. Their human companions could either press keys back at them, or just talk in plain English.

The most significant of Washoe's imitators was probably a chimpanzee cheekily named Nim Chimpsky by Herbert Terrace of Columbia University. The joke was that linguist Noam Chomsky was the most vocal defender of Descartes' belief that language was uniquely human. Terrace held a quite different view. In early 1975, he said in an interview, "I'm not the only one trying to teach a chimp a sign language. There are others ... but I hope to be the one who is going to do it right.

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