Saturday, September 03, 2011


I've been on a primate language acquisition kick, probably because the general Rise of Planet of the Apes zeitgeist, but also because of my own little primate's language development. See below for the some "gestural language" from my developing hominid, plus a vintage brainiac-gorilla documentary I found on YouTube that will have to serve as a free substitute for Rise of Planet of the Apes because I'm on a strict budget, ya'll, and my Amazon review of Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are, by Roger Fouts, the researcher who raised/taught Washoe, the world-famous chimpanzee who communicated using about 350-word vocabulary of American Sign Language signs during her 42-year lifespan.

This mostly shows Jackson not signing a ton of stuff I ask him to sign, but it does serve (for me at least) as an interesting document of his thought process at this stage, i.e. where he looks, what associations he has with certain words, what he'll do by request and what has to be in context.


Koko the Gorilla was a Really Big Deal when I was a kid. Her All Ball kitten saga was as significant a piece of "real science for children" as was teacher Christa McAuliffe's ill-fated Challenger ride, so I knew all about Koko's "humanity" from an early age, but I'd never seen this documentary before, and it's a fascinating relic of its era.

Both Koko and Penny are still alive, well and living together in Silicon Valley. Koko is now 40 years old and she knows about 1,000 signs and can understand about 2,000 words of spoken English. Oh, and she has her own YouTube channel, naturally.

Note: Penny talks to/with/about Koko the exact same way I talk to my human toddler.

Note: I'll be damned if in one scene Koko and Mikey aren't cavorting together in the plantings just off Palm Drive at Stanford University, just rolling around on their leashes as if they were friendly puppies. Why were there no talking gorillas hanging around campus when I was there?! What a ripoff, man.


Extraordinary book. Should be required reading in any human biology class, but more than that, it's a rollicking read. The charming “talking chimp” Washoe at the center of the story is a compelling, strong female character, and her multiple close escapes from villainous scientists, her heroic leadership of her troop, her exceptionally warm mother's heart and her genuine friendship with the author (her “big brother” Roger) make for a great story. Fouts intertwines her story with his story, the story of primate evolution, the culture wars that make Darwin a dirty word in America, primate research around the world, university faculty lounge backbiting and so much more.

(a) Key points from Next of Kin

  • Chimps (and presumably bonobos) are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas or orangutans. They are us, and we are them.
  • We think we humans are unique and made especially in the image of God, etc, etc., but Fouts argues our humanness is less interesting than our beingness, and that, well, chimps are people, too. Capable of generating language, transmitting culture and experiencing feelings and suffering, they are anything but dumb animals distinct from us.
  • Individual chimpanzees are as unique as individual humans, their individual personalities resulting, as ours do, from a combination of inborn temperament, upbringing, experience, genetics, physical gifts and “education.”
  • Chimps stay close to their mothers until they are at least 10 years old, as do human children, and they can live to be 50 years old or more. They have memories much like our own, and will remember friends, family members, experiences and training their whole lives through, whether they are living in the wild, a biomedical research facility, a zoo or perhaps all three at different times.
  • On the topic of sign language, which was the breakthrough tool that allowed scientists to see how cognitively advanced chimps really were, Fouts expresses a belief that gestural language actually preceded the development of spoken language in humans, noting (among multiple other points) that infants gesture in various ways as much or more than they communicate vocally, we universally “regress” to signing when spoken language becomes unavailable, and that the tongue and hands seem to be closely, unconsciously linked in human communication.
(b) The story of Washoe

Fouts uses the story of his extraordinary friend, family member and research subject Washoe to teach his readers a stunning lesson about the personhood of great apes. Read this story and your thinking about the nature of the soul will be changed forever. The gist of Fouts' message, however, can be gleaned might be this from the second-to-last page of the book: “There was one [memory] that stood out [as we celebrated Washoe's 30th birthday]: It was that terrible morning in 1970 when five-year-old Washoe woke up inside the chimpanzee colony at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. For the first time since her infancy she was face to face with other chimpanzees, and she referred to them, disdainfully, as BLACK BUGS. From that moment forward Washoe could have held on to her 'human superiority' and ignored or mistreated the other chimps. After all, they were strange looking, ill-mannered, and didn't even know sign language. But Washoe let go of her cultural arrogance, and she seemed to care deeply for her long-lost kin. She mothered the young, defended the weak, and saved the life of a newcomer.”

(c) The story of Enos

There was once a NASA “space chimp” named Enos. He was sent into space in 1961 and “Trouble arose...the Mercury's banana pellet system went haywire and began giving Enos shocks for his correct responses. Suddenly the five-year-old chimpanzee was faced with a reward-punishment system that contradicted more than a year of intensive training. Scientists assume that Enos would begin responding incorrectly in order to find the banana pellet rewards, but instead he overrode NASA's malfunctioning system and performed the flight tasks he knew were right, even though he received an electric shock for every correct lever move.” [italics added for emphasis] Long story short, Enos survived even though he was minutes away from being cooked alive in his overheating capsule as it landed in the ocean, scientists were barely able to replicate Enos' performance on-board the capsule even when they weren't being electrocuted, and as a result of Enos' bravery, NASA engineers made hundreds of design changes to their system before sending John Glenn into space in 1962.

(d) The story of Mark and David

Fouts originally wanted to be a child psychologist before he met Washoe and followed her into the world of ape language studies, and at one point he went back to that a bit when a friend asked him to try some of his sign language teaching techniques with one, then two, autistic boys.

“After observing David I was more certain than ever that sign language might work for him. Signing might capitalize on David's two working channels, the visual and the motor.” David began signing and then speaking and then combined spoken words into phrases. “I was completely stumped by this development. Why would his signing, which is visual, lead him to speak, which is auditory and vocal?” Fouts taught the same lessons to another autistic boy, Mark, and had the same results. “Mark began speaking. First it was one word in our fifth week. Then more and more words until the tenth week, when he began combining words and phrases. When I charted Mark's progress in language development, there were four adjacent curves, each beginning a few weeks apart, that traced the same arc. There was one curve for signs, another for signed phrases, a third for words, and a fourth for word phrases...[I later] discovered that at least two other teams of researchers were trying sign language with autistic children and had reported results similar to mine...Speech was beginning to look like a pleasant side effect of sign language training in autistic children, although nobody had the slightest idea why...[Then researcher Dr. Doreen Kimura] explained to me that the region of the brain that controlled speech also appeared to control precise hand movements. Patients with aphasia could understand or produce a word, but they could not combine words into a sentence...It took about one second for this to sink in. Speech involves precise and sequential motor movements...[both sign and speech] are forms of gesture. Sign language uses gesture of the hands; spoken language is a gesture of the tongue. The tongue makes precise movements, stopping at specific places around the mouth so that we can produce certain sounds. The hands and fingers stop at precise places around the body to produce signs. These precision movements of the tongue and hands are not just related, they are connected through the motor regions of the brain.”

The info highlighted in blue above is basically the information I've been trying to find about the "benefits" of sign language and why it works to promote language development in both normal kids and kids with special needs. I knew that gross motor control of the hands is easier for babies than managing the 100-plus muscles of the face and throat, but this explains the brain element of it all. The use of sign language is essentially a workout for the same areas of the brain that eventually control spoken language, strengthening and activating them and building more connections to the areas of the brain that control language production. Neat.

Finally, I think it's worth noting that the scientists who were assigned to teach Koko and Washoe language soon lost their scientific "objectivity" and became deeply emotionally attached to their subjects. Both Penny Patterson and Roger Fouts treated their talking apes as human family members with special needs and eventually valued their apes' personhood before their scientific significance. That's not to say that the research conducted by the scientists is invalid, just to suggest that perhaps great "parenting" is what made Koko and Washoe so successful, and studying the teaching/parenting methods used by Fouts and Patterson to "raise" their "cross-fostered"/"bicultural" apes might be as interesting as studying the apes themselves.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

One of the moms in the new baby group from the hospital my son was born at was the chef for Koko.