Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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What can bonobos teach us about the nature of language?

Lindsay Stern writes:

One spring day in 2005, a yellow school bus carrying six passengers turned onto a freshly paved driveway seven miles southeast of downtown Des Moines, Iowa. Passing beneath a tunnel of cottonwood trees listing in the wind, it rumbled past a life-size sculpture of an elephant before pulling up beside a new building. Two glass towers loomed over the 13,000-square-foot laboratory, framed on three sides by a glittering blue lake. Sunlight glanced off the western tower, scrunching the faces pressed to the windows of the bus. Only three of them were human.

When the back door swung open, out climbed Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, her sister and collaborator Liz Pugh, a man named William Fields, and three bonobo apes, who were joining a group of five bonobos who had recently arrived at the facility. The $10 million, 18-room compound, known then as the Great Ape Trust, bore little resemblance to a traditional research center. Instead of in conventional cages, the apes, who ranged in age from 4 to 35, lived in rooms, linked by elevated walkways and hydraulic doors they could open themselves. There was a music room with drums and a keyboard, chalk for drawing, an indoor waterfall, and a sun-washed greenhouse stocked with bananas and sugar cane. Every feature of the facility was designed to encourage the apes’ agency: They could help prepare food in a specialized kitchen, press the buttons of a vending machine for snacks, and select DVDs to watch on a television. A monitor connected to a camera outside allowed the bonobos to screen human visitors who rang the doorbell; pressing a button, they granted or denied visitors access to a viewing area secured by laminated glass. But the center’s signature feature was the keyboard of pictorial symbols accessible on computerized touchscreens and packets placed in every room and even printed on researchers’ T-shirts. It consisted of more than 300 “lexigrams” corresponding to English words—a lingua franca that Savage-Rumbaugh had developed over many years to enable the bonobos to communicate with human beings.

Before Savage-Rumbaugh began her research, the bonobo, an endangered cousin of the chimpanzee, was little known outside the Congo River Basin. Savage-Rumbaugh’s seven books and close to 170 articles about their cognitive abilities played a significant role in introducing them to the wider world. Her relationship with a bonobo named Kanzi, in particular, had made the pair something of a legend. Kanzi’s aptitude for understanding spoken English and for communicating with humans using the lexigrams had shown that our hominid kin were far more sophisticated than most people had dared to imagine.

By the time Kanzi arrived at the Great Ape Trust that day in 2005, his name had appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 2011, Time magazine named Savage-Rumbaugh one of the world’s 100 most influential people on the basis of her work with Kanzi and his family. None other than Frans de Waal, the world’s pre-eminent primatologist, lauded her unique experiment. Her research had “punched holes in the wall separating” humans from apes, he wrote—a wall built upon the longstanding scientific consensus that language was humanity’s unique and distinguishing gift.

In November 2013, eight years after she opened the Trust, and having made plans for a phased retirement, Savage-Rumbaugh returned to Des Moines from a medical absence to care for Teco, Kanzi’s 3-year-old nephew, who had injured his leg. The atmosphere was unusually tense. After a strained email exchange that continued for several days, the chair of the facility’s board finally told her that she could no longer stay at the Trust. Still concerned about Teco, Savage-Rumbaugh refused to leave, but, the next day, she complied once the young bonobo was in the hands of another caretaker. “When you depart, please leave your access card and any keys with whomever is on duty right now,” the chairman wrote to her.

Bewildered, Savage-Rumbaugh retreated to the cottage she rented next door. Then she contacted a lawyer. What followed was a prolonged—and ongoing—custody battle unique in the history of animal research and in the movement for animal rights. At its heart is a question that continues to divide primatologists: What constitutes legitimate research into the inner lives of apes? [Continue reading…]

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