Raising Human Babies with Chimps: Donald, Gua, and Viki
THE NOTION that we human beings ought to be able to communicate with the apes, and they with us, is recorded at least since Samuel Pepys described in his diary his visit to the docks of London to see an ape freshly arrived. In our own times, as we have already observed, the wish to communicate with the apes is illustrated by Garner's recording primate sounds on the then newly invented phonograph in order to observe how the animals responded to the played-back sounds. Later, in West Africa, he had the idea of training chimpanzees to "talk" by forming, with his hands, their mouth into words in four languages. Witmer noted the chimpanzee Peter's inability to talk and accepted the anthropological view of the day that the inability was due to a cerebral lack of the motor ability needed to produce sounds. The notion that animals might communicate with human beings was also popular in a certain genre of English literature--for example, in the stories regarding Tarzan's ability to communicate with animals and by the animal companions of Dr. Dolittle, whose language he could understand.
Ape-human communication is a longstanding hope, although it remained for our times to take seriously Pepys's idea that such communication might be studied by teaching the animal a language to be communicated by hand motions. Can the mind of an animal be released from its silence by teaching it to motion a language that is human-designed? The importance and romance of the question may blind us to the fact that the question merely reestablishes the technique Itard wanted to use to investigate Victor's mind. To be sure, Itard wanted to know about Victor's mind what was innate and what was not, while we appear to have no such question about the minds of the animals with whom we wish to communicate. But our times have succeeded in teaching animals to make signs reliably. What these signs represent, and what they might tell us about the thinking of the animal, is another matter.