Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Goodbye To A Language Pioneer

I love it when the natural world thumbs its nose at Mankind's egotism. Consider, for instance, the belief that out of all the animal kingdom only humans are advanced enough to communicate beyond random grunts, territorial chirping, and mating calls. The more science studies animal communication, the more we realize how very complex their languages are. Dolphins and whales are a common example. But even there we like to believe that their language is restricted only to communicating that they're hungry, or horny, or found a good patch of krill. How could we possibly know they aren't waxing poetic about the place of dolphin-kind in the universe? Are we prepared to believe they may have complex thought? Could they even be more advanced than we are in some manner? Sacrilege!

In fact, I'm willing to believe that some animals consider us as being below them. If you don’t agree, ask any cat owner.

A week ago, the world lost the first non-human animal to prove us wrong.

Story: http://www.blogger.com/www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/10/31/signing.chimp.dies.ap/index.html

Washoe was a chimpanzee who, in 1966, became the first primate to be taught American Sign Language. Previous attempts to teach chimps how to verbally communicate all ended in failure. But chimps communicate with gestures in the wild. Why not train them as if they were a deaf human baby? What would be the result? The little chimpanzee immediately began picking up our language, signing the word "toothbrush" when she saw the implement in a bathroom, for instance.

By the time she died on October 30 after a short illness, at the long-lived age of 42, Washoe had a vocabulary of 250 words and had taught sign language to each of her four children (who are 29 to 31 years of age now). She has been housed at the University of Washington's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, where a memorial service will be held on November 12.

Here is a website for the organization that oversaw Washoe and continues to study and take care of her offspring, "Friends of Washoe": http://www.friendsofwashoe.org/.

Washoe was only the first. Likely you have heard of Koko, the signing gorilla (HERE), who, like Washoe, regularly communicates complex thoughts and emotions and has been the continuing source of fascinating studies, documentaries, and articles.

But, hey, Mankind is still God's chosen children. Right? Right??

Sometimes I wonder if the world might be better run by chimps. Sure, they fight each other now and then, but when I read the headlines on any given day I really wonder which is the higher primate. Besides, chimps have sex just to say "hi". That can't be a bad sign.

So what is Washoe's legacy? Simply put, she put us in our place. For the first time one species learned to communicate with another species using their own language. That's monumental! After a year of French in high school and another year of German in college, I still couldn't hold a conversation in either language, and that was with members of my own species.

And what were Washoe's last words? I'd love to find out, but I'm willing to guess it was something to the effect of, "Humans so dumb. Can't learn single word in Chimpanzee!"


Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention learning chimpanzee...all of us who work there are (happily) required to learn and take on chimpanzee behaviors and vocalizations (such as food grunts, play faces, chimpanzee laughter, ect). =)

Angry Lab Rat said...

You work there, Anonymous??

So I can't help but ask: What was Washoe's first sign? And what were her last "words"?