Thursday, January 19, 2012

Big Wide Worl - If I'd had any inkling, I'd have been scared to do it

Sean O'Neill, contributor

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is a primatologist who works at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where she explores the mental and linguistic skills of our primate cousins.

As a graduate, you were all set to do a postdoc in psychology at Harvard University. What happened?
Yes, I was due to go to Harvard to work with behaviourist B. F. Skinner and his famous pigeons. But before I left I happened to sit in on a class by primate researcher Roger Fouts, who brought a chimpanzee named Booee to class. Roger held up objects like a hat, a key and a pair of shoes, and Booee would make what Roger said were signs for those objects. I saw a chimpanzee doing what seemed to be a symbolic task and I was hooked. I said to myself: "Wait a minute, people are teaching chimpanzees human language, and I'm going to Harvard to study pigeons? You need to stay here, this is where it's at if you are interested in the origins of the human mind." I have worked with apes ever since.

Your work on the linguistic capabilities of apes has taken you into uncharted territory...
Yes, for better or for worse, I have gone to a place that other researchers have not. If I had had any inkling into the huge degree of linguistic, conceptual and social similarity between ourselves and bonobos when I started the work I would have been scared to death to do it.   

You believe that language is not unique to humans and that apes are capable of learning it. How do you respond to the criticism this has drawn from some linguists?
The linguists who are criticising what I do are looking at language from the point of view of a society that has lots of written content, so they analyse a sentence as a written entity. But many languages don't have that, and the people who live in those societies often don't think of language in that way. People can use gestures, glances, intonation and common knowledge of the shared context to convey meaning. What linguists often overlook is that non-human primates can use those things in context to convey meaning.

Bonobos can do things once assumed to be the preserve of humans. Who is better at Pac-Man, you or Kanzi, your star bonobo?
Kanzi has to be encouraged and needs verbal guidance, like "oh, go get 'em". He understands that he's doing it at the request of a person. If they leave he'll stop, because he doesn't care about catching all the ghosts.

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