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Sunday, April 22, 2007

They Are Us and We Are Them

Ah yes, the human/animal deception. It came up in the comments to my last post as Kate mentioned how watching programs about apes reminds her that they are just like us. Or we like them.

I need to make this post brief because I'm so passionate about it, but I want to mention the most fascinating book I've ever read, and how, in many ways, it changed my view of the world we live in. It's called Next of Kin, by Roger Fouts and it deals with his 25 years of teaching chimpanzees to use sign language. He began his studies as a grad assistant, working with a professor on a study on the acquisition of language. They began by teaching a single chimpanzee, Washoe, single words, wondering if she, like human children, would begin to string words together on her own. She did. But that's just the beginning of this amazing journey...the drama of this story is sufficient for 6 books, as you following his growing family of chimpanzees and their language development. By the end of this book, I guaranttee you will never be able to look at a chimpanzee or ape the same way, nor will you deny we are sharing this planet with other intelligent beings. And if you have a soul, there will be tears as well, at the impossible stupidity of our selfishness.

Here's a couple of things that struck me hard:

  • At one point, as Washoe entered her teenage years, Roger gives her Playgirl magazines (she indentified with humans, not other chimpanzees), and she would look at the pictures and masturbate.

  • One day Roger was outside taking a smoke break. Washoe was watching him and since she hadn't been taught a sign for cigarette, she signed: "Give me fire stick."

  • Washoe was mated unsuccessfully a couple times -- the babies died. One of the grad assistants became pregnant, then left for maternity leave. The baby was still born. When she returned, Washoe was exited to see her and signed about the baby. The grad assistant had to sign that the baby died. Washoe made the sign for "crying" and tried to console the woman.

  • Washoe decided that the color black was cool -- so whenever she wanted to express her pleasure over something, she'd sign: "That [is] black".

That's just a few of the many situations that remain in my consciousness. Chimpanzees have a lifespan that's very similar to ours, adult chimps are similar in size to humans (yet VASTLY more powerful), and must be constantly stimulated in captivity or they will go insane. Washoe and her family live a good life at Central Washington University. They put on weekly "Chimposiums" where visitors, for a small fee, can view Washoe and her family. It's been about 5 years since my visit, but I plan to return. In the summer, they have a program where for a couple of grand you can spend 2 weeks among them, observing them and cataloging data for the ongoing research. I hope to one day be able to afford it. It would be an honor, and a vacation to beat all others. Yeah, I'm that taken by our next of kin.

Do me a favor -- the next time you go to a zoo and see a chimpanzee or great ape, look into his/her eyes and try not to see the intelligence and the comprehension there. It's a fool's errand -- you will fail. Roger Fouts along with other organizations are working to save the chimpanzees and the great apes from the horrors of medical experimentation and small enclosures. Not from the standpoint that they're animals that deserve respect, but from the standpoint that they are more in line with who we are. That as intelligent, thinking animals, like ourselves, they need more rights and greater protection. And in the end, should never be caged for our entertainment or any other reason. It is a worthy battle, one I support whole-heartedly, but don't expect to see much of a change in my lifetime. Remember, as a species, we can look into the eyes of our neighbors and bomb the hell out of them with little more than a shrug of the shoulders over what they have the potential for. Maybe spending so much time trying to protect our fellow species is a fool's errand too. I hope not.

P.S. The picture is of Washoe.


Minda said...

That is wonderful. I will have to make a note of that book so I can look for it next time I got shopping for reading material. I have always thought that all animals (I include humans as animals) are capable of intelligent thought. It just depends on what atmosphere they are raised in. If the owners treat the animal like nothing more than a pet, it will not develop at it full potential. If the owners talk to the animal and treat it as they would a human, it can become very intelligent and responsive. Even though it can't talk back to you through words, it can speak in body language. Its a shame nature didn't allow animals the ability to speak as we do. It would be very interesting and bonding to be able to have a one on one conversation with your animal companion.


Clifford said...

When you're right, you're right. And I can guarantee you're going to like this book...probably love it. I hope it's still in print.

Believe it or not, chimpanzees have been taught to talk, but their vocal chords are so different from ours that it's not very successful. Sign language turned out to be the solution.

Interestingly enough, there's a breed of ape that's very similar to chimpanzees, called the bonobo, that uses sex rather than strength and power as part of their political society. Have a disagreement, rather than try to pound your adversary into submission, have sex sith it! Hmm...image what our society would be like today if we'd developed from that family tree!

Kate S said...

That was great, Cliff. I'm always inspired by how intelligent and loving other animals are - even with one another. (My brother's girlfriend has a horse whose best friend is a duck.)

Ah, Cliff, living life like a bonobo... :)

Another of the interesting things about the bonobos is that they're pansexual. No hang-ups there! :)

Josh Einstein said...

Chimpanzees are alot smarter than some of the people I've worked with. :)

I mean I have a 9 month old son and when you think about it, babies and chimpanzees are really pretty similar mentally. Obviously they have a lower mental capacity, but they definitely can communicate with us better than any other animal.

I always wanted one for a pet, but I don't like changing diapers on my kid. I imagine a hairy chimpanzee would be even worse. LOL

Clifford said...


Amen to that, brother! In the book, the author states that adult chimpanzee intelligence is comparable to a 6-year old -- which is pretty damned advanced if you ask me.

As a kid (hell, even as an adult) I wanted a chimpanzee too. But visiting Washoe and her kin, I realized the error of my ways. It would be like "owning" a VERY strong person, as they're like 5-feet tall and pretty strong! All the chimpanzees we're used to seeing on television are babies...

Charles Gramlich said...

I always teach about Washoe and her fellow sign language chimps in my classes. Students love it and I think many of them take to heart the close ties we have with animals, especially the great apes.

Clifford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clifford said...

Most excellent, Charles! It's funny, so many of us spend so much time looking for intelligent life out there among the stars, when we've got it right here among us.

Sidney said...

I looked for it after your last post and I haven't been able to find it, but in the '60s or so I heard a poem recited either on TV, the radio or possibly in church.

It compaired apes and humans and noted an ape wouldn't take up a weapon and kill another ape in his home, and ticked off a list of things like that.

I wish I could find it again and I'll continue looking.

Very interesting post.

Thomas M. Sipos said...

When I now think of chimps, I now think of those two chimps who attacked that man, biting off his fingers, and genitals, and face.

Changed my whole way of seeing chimps. They no longer seemed so cute. I saw their dark, evil side.

It's been said that animals are morally superior to humans because animals "never kill for sport or pleasure." But those chimps weren't hunting for food. They were revealing an evil side.

So maybe they really are like us.

Margaret said...

It is a great book. But there are more chimpanzees than Washoe in the book, and in fact it was Lucy who masturbated to Playgirl, and Tatu who thought black was cool.

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This is me and one of my two cats. His name is Cougar, and he’s an F1 Chausie. A chausie is a new breed of cat under development. Chausies are the result of a cross between a domestic cat (in Cougar’s case, a Bengal) and a jungle cat (Felis Chaus). Cougar’s mom is 8 pounds and his father is a 30-pound jungle cat. He’s about 16 pounds, super intelligent, spirited, and toilet trained. A writer without a cat (or two) is not to be trusted.