SILENT PARTNERS: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments by Eugene Linden

SILENT PARTNERS: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments

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Remember Washoe? Remember Nim? (Surname Chimpsky as a taunt to you-know-what-famous language man.) Then there were Ally and Lucy and Koko. All but the last were chimpanzees; Koko was a gorilla. All were the subjects of celebrated experiments in symbolic communication back in the 70's. Washoe started the trend. This young female chimp had been taught American Sign Language (Ameslan) by R. Allan and Beatrice Gardner, whose rationale was that the anatomy of the vocal apparatus in nonhuman primates would forever thwart attempts to get apes to vocalize like human beings. But maybe ape brains could master the abstraction of language and, like deaf people, they could sign their way through conversations. The first experiments were greeted with hurrahs and excitements. But not for long. The skepticism of the behavorial science crowd, the sharp tongues of the Chomskys and others, and some recantings within the ape-language camp itself created rift and rancor. Ape language was limited; they were just rote copiers; they were conditioned by rewards; they were being cued by their teachers; they would never master syntax. . . Linden started reporting on the language experiments and the controversies 15 years ago, not long after graduating from Yale and deciding he wanted a writing career. Now in his third volume on the subject, he brings us up to date in a bittersweet review that is sad commentary on science's trends and fashions. Even worse, the book reveals to what extent mentors went on to other experiments, leaving their graduate students--the ones who shared their lives with the animals--out on an academic limb. More, the animals themselves were a problem no one wanted to cope with. Big chimpanzees are no longer cuddly playmates around the house. Big chimpanzees could bite--and did, in one celebrated case. There was talk of euthanasia and there have been donations to medical laboratories for experiments (some ""terminal""). For some trainers this was too much, so Koko still lives with her mistress; Lucy went back to Africa, where her trainer devoted years to getting her acclimatized to the wild. Linden writes very well, very convincingly, about the passions and the paranoia, managing to sound outraged at human thoughtlessness without jumping into the animal crazies camp. It is clear that he feels injustice has been done and that human nature and science are the worse for their blindness to the plight of their nearest relatives. Viva apes! is the message: we need them--and the reader can only agree.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1986
Publisher: Times Books