Washoe, the chimpanzee who learned American Sign Language in the 1960s, died after a short illness on Oct. 30, 2007, at the age of 42, at her home on the campus of Central Washington University. She had lived at the university’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute since retiring from her position as the first signing chimp at the University of Nevada in 1970.
When Goethe died, his final utterance was, “Mehr Licht,” ‘more light,’ and Hamlet went offstage with the equally enigmatic, “The rest is silence.” But there were no reports that Washoe signed any last words or even waved good-bye to the friends who attended her at the end.
Washoe, who won the hearts of all who knew her, though some scientists doubted her ability to use language
Humans have been fascinated with the idea of talking animals at least since the days of Aesop. In our drive to anthromorphize the world, children talk to – and for – their stuffed animals, and more than one animal fancier has become convinced that their beloved pets understand their every word and respond with appropriate body language or even vocalization.
There was a brief flurry of excitement in the 1970s over the possibility, now discredited, that plants would also respond to kind words by growing, which was their version of communicating. In fact plants thrive on water and sunlight, not on vocabulary-enriched potting soil, and most plant owners have long since given up talking to their flora in any meaningful sort of way.
Anthropomorphic malevolent plants looking all innocent in Roger Corman’s “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)
Before Washoe came along, researchers had tried and failed to teach primates spoken language, but in the 1960s Allen and Beatrix Gardner thought that since chimpanzees communicated with one another using gestures as well as cries, they might be able to learn sign language to talk with humans.
The Gardners adopted Washoe as an infant and taught her as many as 130 signs, impressing many researchers with her ability to combine signs to create new “words,” for example signing “water” and “bird” when she saw a swan.
Unlike Washoe, fellow-chimp Bonzo, seen with co-star and president-to-be Ronald Reagan in the 1951 cult classic, “Bedtime for Bonzo,” was not a great communicator, but a fictional character, a creation of the media
Other observers were skeptical about the chimp’s abilities, arguing that Washoe never used signs either creatively or spontaneously, but merely mimicked her trainers’ cues, much like the early 20th-century carnival horse known as Clever Hans, who entertained crowds by working simple arithmetic problems until a psychologist proved that he was really watching his trainer’s unconscious body language to signal the right answer.
Clever Hans entertaining a festive but gullible crowd
After Washoe’s early success, researchers tried signing with other primates. Penny Patterson began teaching Koko the gorilla to sign in 1972, and Koko reportedly mastered anywhere from 350 to 1,000 words. The San Francisco Zoo’s most famous great ape was the subject of a 1978 movie by Barbet Schroeder and a more recent PBS documentary, “A Conversation with Koko.”
Koko and Penny Patterson signing, or simply posing at the zoo, in the 1978 movie “Koko, le gorille qui parle” (Koko, the talking gorilla), by French director Barbet Schroeder
Other researchers taught chimps to manipulate plastic symbols or placed them in environments similar to those in which infants learn their first words. And while those who worked with the animals continued to be convinced that they were indeed communicating, other scientists have resisted the idea that chimps, gorillas, or even the ourang outang, whose name in Malay means “man of the woods,” could master the complexities of human language through either signs or sounds.
The ourang outang, literally ‘the man of the woods,’ or ‘l’homme sauvage,’ from George Edwards, Gleanings of Natural History, 1758.
The monkey signers insist that there is no reason to think of language as an exclusively human property. But since humans learn language without formal instruction, and no animal has ever been able to do that, the humans-only crowd remains convinced that signing animals are no more human-like than the incredible performing dogs that graced the likes of the Ed Sullivan show.
A circus dog and pony show, ca. 1947
So far, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have stayed out of the chimpanzee language debate, preferring to sabotage anyone who puts animal and research in the same sentence instead of finding out anything interesting about the nature of language.
But in case PETA’s reading this, let me assure them that no animals were harmed in the writing of this post.