Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Thursday, November 01, 2007

RIP Washoe

The first non-human animal to have acquired (arguably) human language has died at the age of 42. Washoe, a chimpanzee born in Africa in 1965 and captured by the U.S. Air Force, was adopted in 1966 by husband and wife research team Beatrice and Allen Gardner. The Gardners attempted to treat Washoe as a deaf human child, and taught her several signs. She is reported to have taught her adopted son many of the signs as well.

The claim that Washoe acquired language, with all its grammatical rules and structures, is not without controversy, but it is reported that she used from 200-250 signs reliably.

Interestingly, the great ape thought to be the most adept at human language is Kanzi, a Bonobo living at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa. The Trust relates that:

Kanzi has been presented with a variety of carefully controlled tests which demonstrate his comprehension of speech. In these tests, spoken words are presented through headphones and Kanzi is requested to indicate the real object, the photo or the lexigram that the word represents. He is essentially 100 percent accurate on all words that are a part of vocabulary at any given age. Today, his vocabulary includes more than 500 words! His comprehension of spoken language is at least equivalent to that of a two-and-a-half-year-old child.

It should also be noted that Kanzi has vocalized to other apes:
[Researcher] Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has observed Kanzi in communication to his sister. In this experiment, Kanzi was kept in a separate room of the Great Ape Project and shown some yogurt. Kanzi started vocalizing the word "yogurt" in an unknown "language"; his sister, who could not see the yogurt, then pointed to the lexigram for yogurt.
Whether or not the apes are mastering human language, with its intricate structures and rules, it's clear that these apes are communicating with people using human words and symbols. And it's evident that these apes have emotions, and arguably an inner life. I'm fascinated by inter-species interactions, and can you imagine this one? Imagine being the researcher as Washoe learned each new sign?

What a gift. RIP Washoe.


Kristy said...

And she was a Washingtonian to boot! Yes, it is a fascinating topic. Makes you wonder how adept they can/will become.

Anonymous said...

What is the smartest animal anyway? Is it a dolphin? or someone in the primate family? Or I also heard a whale?

I met a monkey once. and I do mean met him. I was catering, and we did some dinner at the Art institute celebrating that famous painting, Gosh I forgot the name of it but there's a pic of it here

Scroll down to the pic with people in the conference room looking at the painting I am talking about. The one done in Dots with people standing by the lake and one lady has a monkey on a leash.

Wow that would have been much smaller of a post if I just knew the name of that painting. Anyway I did a catering gig at the Art Institute for some snooty patooty pantses to celebrate the anniversary of that painting and they hired people dressed as those characters so they had to bring in a monkey for the one lady. They hired some guy, who rents out his animals for parties like this, but he was also there of course, and he had this monkey, maybe a few feet tall and I got to meet him!

He took my hand with is two tiny hands, pulled my hand by his face and rubbed his face on my hand and looked at me with these sweet eyes.


speaking of Toots,I'm considering a girlfriend for him. I called paws about the aggression, Most people say he's jsut playing becasue he seems to be feeling better. But I may get him a friend. This may be part of his problem. If my allergies can handle it.

Anonymous said...

God bless America, or Iraq, or everyone

Try this and peice it together


Trailhead said...

Here's a link.

Hmm, interesting.

As for who's the smartest animal, I don't know. I guess it depends what you mean by smart. Monkeys are cool, though, there's no doubt about that.

kris said...

You're right - being the researcher witnessing the learning would have been totally cool. I don't find it very hard to believe that other animals are more like us than different from us - as far as understanding, reasoning, having feelings etc. To think of them learning our language is fascinating.

michael said...

Without question communciation happens between humans and others.