Talking with apes

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh undergoing language research with bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha (By Wcalvin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Professor Sue Savage-Rumbaugh in a class at the Ape Language Research Centre of Georgia State University with Kanzi and Panbanisha (By Wcalvin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


On concluding my Master of Science at the University of London, (studying philosophy of biology with Professor David Papineau at King’s College), I flew to the United States to a Language Research Centre to meet with the bonobo – or pygmy chimpanzee – Kanzi, and the biologist and psychologist Professor Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of Georgia State University.

Below is the piece I wrote as a cover essay for the Financial Times Weekend section in the winter of 2001.

One thing I witnessed at the centre, which is not in the essay but has haunted me since, was a video I was shown of two bonobos in a room. One had put a gorilla mask on his head. (The gorilla is a natural enemy of the bonobo. Gorillas are vegetarian, but aggressive nonetheless, especially with competitors over fruit-collection.) He was chasing the other bonobo around the room, who was quite clearly ‘acting’ fear – or rather, overacting. Lest this analysis be doubted, after a minute or so of this, the first bonobo took off his mask, the second one put it on, and the chase resumed in the opposite direction. This form of playing, which requires the active suspension of disbelief, is the origins of drama itself. Of course, the bonobos do understand drama: they watched films at the centre. They would even select which films they watched from pictures on the spine of VHS tapes. The most common choice: the 1933 King Kong. (The more recent film was judged by Prof. Savage-Rumbaugh to be too disturbing.)

I am pleased to be able to report that, despite the fact that the centre depended on funding from the US National Institutes for Child Health and Development which came to an end in 2003, not long after this essay came out one of its readers, the Iowa businessman Ted Townsend, set up the Great Ape Trust (to which this writer was also an initial donor) where all the apes from the centre now reside along with Prof. Savage-Rumbaugh.




Talking with apes

Researchers carrying out ground-breaking experiments with apes say they are able to converse with them. Alexander Fiske-Harrison asks where we go from there.

Our first meeting is tense. She’s a celebrity who is recording with the rock star Peter Gabriel. She’s been interviewed, filmed and photographed too many times to be impressed by reporters. So she sits with Buddha-like calm and makes her demands.

First, I have to play a game of “chase” with her two young female assistants. Swallowing my pride, I put my notebook and camera on the floor and am pursued up and down the lawn.

Next, the three of us are told to play “tickle”. This is slightly more personal, but again I submit. I end up responding with a mixture of genuine and forced laughter, more than a little embarrassment and complete fascination.

For this was not, as it may seem, the bizarre humiliation-ritual of some contemporary prima donna. The queen of this situation is Panbanisha, she of the disconcerting stare, accompanied by her youngest son Nathan in a recent photograph, a photograph taken with her explicit permission.

Panbanisha, a bonobo, with her eldest son Nyota.
Panbanisha, a bonobo, with her eldest son Nyota (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Panbanisha is a 15-year-old bonobo. Bonobos are one of the five species of great ape; the others are humans, gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees, to whom bonobos are most closely related and whom they resemble. They are sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees as they are more gracefully built than their common chimpanzee cousins and have darker faces. They are also less belligerent and live in larger, less violent groups that do not have such male-dominated hierarchies.

It is because of these group politics that Panbanisha made the demands she did. She wanted to know who this new addition to her social group was by seeing how I would respond at various levels to her requests. My agreement and enthusiasm tell her about my character and how I perceive my own status in the group.The behaviour of the two female assistants towards me tells her how they perceive my status. The level of control and fluidity of my motion informs her about my physical health and abilities.

To get me to do things for her, Panbanisha used a combination of direct pointing at the people present and touching the symbols of a large custom-built keyboard. The keyboard has 256 symbols, each of which is an arbitrary geometrical shape standing for one English word. More could be added, but already it is an unwieldy thing.

This is the world of ape-language research, where animals “speak” to you (and you do what they say). Panbanisha lives at the Language Research Centre of Georgia State University, with its 55 acres of woodland and laboratory buildings housing four chimpanzees, or “trogs” as they are called here (after their scientific name, Pan troglodytes), and eight bonobos (Pan paniscus).

The centre is closed to the public, partly to minimise disturbance to the apes. As a result, since the project began in 1972, it has depended on funding from the National Institutes for Child Health and Development.

With only two years remaining on this grant, private sponsors are being sought to fund a new institute. However, the university may not agree to have private investors on its own land and would certainly not allow the apes to be moved unless their welfare was guaranteed.

The cost of research and the upkeep of the apes is about $lm (£600,000) a year. A new centre or the improvement of the existing one would cost another one-off payment of $2m. This may sound expensive, but it is less than similar projects elsewhere. In Germany, the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science is to divert about DM113m (£35m) of its DM2bn budget to evaluate claims concerning apes and language deriving mainly from work done at the Georgia centre.

The controversy surrounding these claims forms a second reason for establishing a centre with long-term funding. Since the 1930s and 1940s, when scientists adopted baby chimpanzees and attempted to teach them to speak, there has been a vociferous debate about the ability of apes to learn language.

In the 1960s Noam Chomsky, now professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, criticised the research, claiming it over-interpreted what were complicated gestures by animals and called them language. For Chomsky, all that the research showed was empty mimicry by the animals to gain extra food. It was not communication, but manipulation, and the researchers had had a fast one pulled on them by the apes.

The debate continued until dissension within the ranks of ape-language researchers appeared to give its opponents the ammunition they needed to clinch the argument.

Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University, had been such a strong proponent of the research that even his chimpanzee’s name was a challenge to the critics. He called him Nim Chimpsky. However, when Terrace closely studied his own video footage of Nim’s “conversations”, he began to realise Nim was mostly echoing the signs of the researchers rather than using any of his own.

Further research began to reveal a picture in which the apes were being subtly cued in what to “say” by unwitting researchers who were over-eager for positive results.

The storm broke when Terrace presented his results at a conference of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1980. It was a disaster for the field and almost led to a vote that funding be cut off from all such projects and redirected to “more worthy” causes.

After that, few people dared to attribute anything more than complicated behaviour patterns to apes, for fear of losing their scientific credibility. Editors of academic journals would not even look at, let alone publish, results from the field.

But the voice of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, professor of biology and psychology at Georgia State, was one of a small number in the aftermath of the 1980 conference which said flaws in the early research did not mean apes were genetically incapable of language, merely that the methods used had not reliably taught it to them.

Former proponents were too embarrassed to speak up, however. More important, the claims of language in apes conflicted with theories that had proved useful in cognitive science – such as Chomsky’s influential theory of language acquisition that says human children, no matter how intelligent, can learn language because it is in the brain at birth in a “language organ”.

However, research showing that apes can learn language in captivity, but do not have it in the wild, makes it more likely that language requires only some sort of general intelligence.

Chomsky’s theory has always had its critics that have taken this line. Another founding father of cognitive science was Hilary Putnam, now Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Harvard. He clashed with Chomsky in the 1960s on just this point.

Putnam’s strongest argument is that there something fishy about saying that there is an entity in the brain which exudes language in a way somehow analogous to the way the pancreas secretes insulin. For the analogy is never further explained, so no idea is given of what this means in real terms. You do not explain one mystery by merely substituting it with another. Even today, with all the advances in brain-scanning technology, there is no physical evidence for such an organ in the brain.

However, Chomsky’s hegemony is by no means over, especially at MIT. The best-selling and most influential recent books on language and psychology are by Steven Pinker, MIT’s professor of psychology and an unashamed supporter of Chomsky. He dismisses ape-language research, saying it makes as much scientific sense as training a human “to hoot and shriek like chimp”.

He also claims that only baby chimpanzees are used in the research, because adults are “strong, vicious, wild animals”. He clearly cannot have met the apes I did. They were extremely courteous.

On one occasion, Savage-Rumbaugh attempted to persuade an adult male bonobo, Kanzi, to relay Panbanisha’s requests to a less mature bonobo whose grasp of language was poor.

The young bonobo became frustrated and began kicking the professor. When Savage-Rumbaugh got justly upset about this, Kanzi who weighs about 180lb, with arm muscles five times more dense than those of a human athlete – stepped between the arguing pair with both hands raised, vocalising his distress and trying to calm the situation.

Pinker’s most reasonable claim (and the one most often repeated by other science writers) is that when it comes to apes and language “deep down” they just don’t “get it”. The implication is that apes do not really understand what language is for. This claim is not just supported by the fact that they don’t use language in the wild, but also by the limited ways that they do use language when they have unnaturally acquired it.

It is difficult not to agree that the apes do use language in a less readily discursive manner than human children. But when you watch how they do use language, you feel they are “getting it” in a different way.

For example, from a young age Kanzi would go off on his own with his keyboard and press symbols while trying to hide this from the researchers, as though he were “talking” to himself.

The problem for the proponents of new ideas such as ape language is that it is difficult to persuade scientists even to look at fresh data that undercuts widely held theories.

But Kanzi forced them to. He is only 21, but is mentioned in publications from the Encyclopaedia Britannica to Time magazine. Most introductory texts to psychology or human evolution deal with him in a balanced way, offering the arguments for and against ape language, as do more recent issues of Science and its UK counterpart, Nature.

The first time I met him he wanted, like his sister, to find out about me. Kanzi was particularly happy when his great friend, Savage-Rumbaugh, gave him the physical contact bonobos require. The professor gets on well with the apes, constantly in physical contact, responding to the subtlest changes in their demeanors and all the while explaining to me what she believed to be going on in their minds.

She has not been bitten by one in about two decades and feels comfortable approaching bonobos in the wild – a powerful indicator that her ideas about the minds of apes are at least in part correct.

First, I asked Kanzi by spoken words if I could take his photo and was firmly turned down. Instead, he indicated with the keyboard and by pointing at me that I should get some grapes. Once these had been delivered, I asked again and this time he agreed – I had paid my dues.

Next, I asked Kanzi if he would please make me a tool. He got up, found himself two rocks and began banging them together until he had made a small tool with an edge. However, before he could give it to me, he spotted a naturally occurring stone which he deemed a better instrument, and discarded his own handiwork. (I still have this stone, which is on my desk at home next to a small piece of marble I took from the Acropolis in Athens when I was six and knew no better – AFH)

It was an impressive performance – but was it scientific proof? Kanzi has been extensively tested in laboratory conditions on his comprehension of spoken words and the symbols of his keyboard. One test involved his being asked by an invisible interrogator through head-phones (to avoid cueing) to identify 35 different items in 180 trials. His success rate was 93 per cent. This would seem to leave little room for doubt.

Even more impressive is how Kanzi learnt the language. He was not taught, but instead was present as Savage-Rumbaugh tried to teach his mother, Matata, the keyboard. Matata was caught in the wild in Zaire when she was about three, but never really excelled at language. Kanzi was silent witness to her training for two years until one day the two were separated. On his first day alone Kanzi used the keyboard 120 times, never having communicated before.

Such data is widely available, as is more complicated research into the linguists’ holy grail: syntax. But because researchers have to spend so much time producing new and more ingenious proofs for the sceptics, they have little time to test how far the apes can actually go. This frustrates even the animals: Kanzi, for example, is not happy at being asked endlessly to prove he knows what a given spoken word or symbol means.

At best, this approach will yield apes which occasionally use language in controlled conditions. At worst, it could produce institutionalised apes, more akin to patients in mental asylums and inmates in prisons.

cont’d. page 3

Savage-Rumbaugh’s holistic approach to the research, rearing the apes from birth and immersing them in a “linguistic world”, seems the most sensible way forward given its success with Kanzi, Panbanisha and her eldest son, Nyota.

Other researchers, steeped in the practical tradition of behavioural science, treat the apes more like experimental subjects. They are not mistreated but the endless repetition and controlled environments do not allow the apes to learn the symbols in a meaningful, contextual way. Also, it requires constant “bribery” to keep them interested, which is no way to make someone “get” language.

A way forward needs to be found as the importance is not simply scientific: there are practical implications.

At first, lessons drawn from the work with apes at the language research centre helped with the teaching of language to severely mentally retarded children. As ape-language research moves off in new directions that side of the project is dwindling.

It is being replaced by one just as vital, though. For, as poaching, deforestation and the “bushmeat” trade ravage the great ape populations, they may soon only exist in captivity. And it is only by fully grasping the intellectual capacities of the apes that we will be able to provide them with even rudimentary welfare standards.

We have known since the 1960s that even in the wild these animals fashion tools; since the 1970s that they show self-awareness at the level of recognising themselves in mirrors; since the 1980s that bonobo and chimpanzee DNA differs from that of humans by only 1.6 per cent; and since the 1990s that they exhibit such rudimentary moral concepts as reciprocity – which makes chimpanzees reward the generosity of other chimpanzees (and punish selfishness) independent of standing in the social hierarchy.

Savage-Rumbaugh is also looking into their artistic capacities – hence Panbanisha’s work with rock musician Peter Gabriel.

The great danger now is that great apes are kept alive merely to prevent the species going extinct, housed for generations in a prison-like environment that could produce mental deterioration leading to full mental disorder.

These remarkable creatures deserve far better.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison is at the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics and Political Science at the University of London.

The Language Research Centre at˜wwwlrc/ [closed – now – AFH]

Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind (Savage-Rumbaugh with science writer Roger Lewin), published by John Wiley and Sons, New York, in 1994; and Apes, Language and the Human Mind (Savage-Rumbaugh with philosopher Stuart Shanker and linguist Talbot Taylor), published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, in 1998.

Copyright © Alexander Fiske-Harrison 25 November 2001

Post-Script: One final anecdote from Professor Sue Savage-Rumbaugh , for which I have no supporting evidence, but which I can almost believe having met the protagonist. A journalist, from The New York Times if I remember right, had come to interview Prof. Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi. However, the journalist refused to “play the game” (see below) and addressed all questions to Prof. Savage-Rumbaugh, ignoring Kanzi. Kanzi got more and more annoyed, and so did Prof. Savage-Rumbaugh telling the man to include Kanzi in the interview. Still not playing along, the journalist turned again to Prof. Savage-Rumbaugh and said, “does the monkey…,” at which point Kanzi got up and left. When the journalist asked what had happened, Prof. Savage-Rumbaugh replied that Kanzi was not a monkey, he was an ape (a group which comprises only humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utans – these last two groups having been recently divided further into two species). Kanzi knew exactly what a monkey was having worked with them in research studies: they were little clever animals with tails. He rather liked them. However, he categorically was not one.


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