Nim: A Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language
Speaking of Apes: A Critical Anthology of Two-Way Communication with Man
Remember the great tumult during the Sixties about talking dolphins? Because a dolphin brain is larger than ours, could it be that porpoises are potentially as bright as we are, maybe more so? John C. Lilly seriously tried teaching English to these clever little whales and for a time actually believed he had taught dolphins to mimic human speech. Like the black races of Africa, Lilly once said, porpoises are on the brink of becoming Westernized, a revolution with unpredictable consequences. “If dolphins come to understand our cold war,” he warned, “we don’t know how they will proceed to operate.”
After Lilly became convinced that several of his Florida porpoises had committed suicide, he abandoned his watery research to wander off into the jungles of parapsychology and Eastern mysticism. He reported fantastic encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence. He told reporters that dolphins were using ESP to “infiltrate” human minds. Eventually it became clear to almost everybody, as it had been all along to “establishment” biologists, that Lilly’s research was hopelessly flawed, and that the whale mind, though wondrous and unique, is not much more so, if at all, than the mind of a pig or an elephant. The lovable dolphins swam away from the press and television, leaving in their wakes a batch of careless books and TV documentaries, and surely the worst movie (The Day of the Dolphin) ever directed by Mike Nichols.
As the dolphin flap faded, a new media enthusiasm began to gather momentum. At the University of Nevada, Allen and Beatrice Gardner succeeded in teaching ASL (American Sign Language) to an infant female chimpanzee named Washoe. For the first time in history, it was loudly proclaimed, a lower primate had mastered a language in which it could talk to humans.
“Talk” and “language” are, of course, fuzzy terms with wide spectrums of meaning. A bluejay “talks” to other birds when it warns them of a cat. A cat “talks” when it asks to be fed by rubbing against your calf. Dogs communicate by barking, growling, whimpering, wagging their tails, and leaving symbolic messages on fire hydrants. Even so, the world was astounded by Washoe’s ability to understand hundreds of sign gestures, especially by her ability to combine signs in ways that suggested a rudimentary grasp of grammar.
The best-known instance of Washoe inventing a phrase was when her teacher, Roger Fouts, had taken her out in a rowboat and a swan glided by. Fouts signed “What’s that?” Washoe, knowing the signs for water and bird, responded with “water bird.” There were many other two-word combinations mastered by Washoe: Washoe sorry, Roger tickle, you drink, and so on.
Other researchers soon were teaching other visual languages to young chimps. In California David Premack symbolized words with plastic tiles of different shapes and colors. His star pupil, Sarah, became almost as famous as Washoe. Like Washoe, Sarah seemed to create significant phrases. David’s wife, Ann, wrote a book called Why Chimps Can Read.
In Georgia, Duane Rumbaugh tried…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.