Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature

By Douglas Keith Candland | Go to book overview

11
Human and Ape Communication: Washoe, Koko, and Nim

BORN IN West Africa, most probably in September 1965, a female chimpanzee was destined to arrive in Reno, Nevada, on June 21, 1966. There she would learn to use one language of the deaf, American Sign Language (ASL), with the hope that she might communicate to human beings, and that human beings might communicate to her. The idea can be traced to Pepys in the seventeenth century and the first execution of it to Itard in the eighteenth. It may be recalled that Itard and Victor had their first meeting in the Luxembourg Gardens, the Pan's park from which the Institute for the Deaf may be seen, a place from which Itard developed a means to communicate with the nonhearing. The notion that the noncommunicating person can be taught was developed further by the work of Samuel Howe with Laura Bridgman and, later, by Lubbock and the dog, Van.

One of the major tasks given to both the chimpanzees Gua and Viki was to speak so that they could communicate with hearing human beings. The hope of establishing communication between silent minds and human minds had been prominent for centuries, but such work had become arid, perhaps because Gua and Viki were so disappointing in their command of speech. For the female chimpanzee who would make her way within the year to Reno, Nevada, the means of communication would be, not articulated sounds, but the movement of the hands. The task of teaching Washoe to use hand-signals, the reliability of which would convey meaning to human beings, was undertaken by Beatrix and R. Allen Gardner and their associates. Thus was Samual Pepys's suggestion of 1661 finally attended to, almost exactly three hundred years later.

According to the Gardners's description, 1 Washoe was raised in their home in Reno, Nevada, a home with a garage and a garden. Washoe lived in a trailer on the property. They describe the upbringing of Washoe as like that of a human child living in the same neighborhood. In her first years, the Gardners' write, Washoe learned to use a cup and to use eating utensils, to clear the table, and wash up, more or less; to dress, use toys and household tools, and to examine books. The Gardners' goal

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