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5.0 out of 5 stars Chimpanzees can use Sign Language??, 17 Mar 2006
This review is from: Next of Kin (Living Planet Book) (Paperback)
Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are was written by Roger Fouts (with Stephen Turkel Mills) and first published in 1998. The book is about the lives of a group of chimpanzees (particularly a female named Washoe) who can use American Sign Language (ASL) and Roger's commitment to them over the last three decades.
The chimps detailed in the book are Washoe, Tatu, Moja*, Loulis and Dar. I know their names and the signs for each of their names well because I met them myself. Back in 2001 I did two weeks voluntary work at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI), part of Central Washington University in Washington, USA, the current home of these chimpanzees.
* Moja is no longer alive, she passed away in 2002.
I did a psychology degree which led to my fascination in language. Chimpanzees who have successfully been taught ASL are used as case studies in order to try to explain language development. I am also a travel-holic and a trip to the West coast seemed like a good idea, thus I applied and was accepted to work as a volunteer at CHCI. Next of Kin was advised as reading material before we arrived in order for us to gain some understanding of the centre and the background of the five residents…..
…. And so I came across this book and I literally couldn't put it down. It is fascinating, compelling and heart-warming. It will teach you about things you never thought were possible…..
The story starts back in the early 1970s with the ideas of Allen and Beatrix Gardner. These researchers came up with the great idea of finding themselves a baby chimpanzee and attempting to teach it ASL in order to see whether or not it was lack of vocal, rather than mental, ability which prohibited our closest relatives from using a spoken language. In 1976 they acquired a ten month old female chimpanzee named Washoe, who had become surplus to the Space Program. Roger Fouts was hired by Gardner and Gardner as part of a team of research assistants who cared for the chimp and taught her ASL. At the time he started to work with Washoe she had already been taught around two dozen signs. Roger helped to raise Washoe in a caravan and garden in Reno, Nevada. She was treated the same way one would a human child with 24hour care. They clothed her, bathed her and put her in diapers, fed her using cutlery, played dolls with her and signed her bedtime stories. Spoken English was not used at any point in her presence. Only ASL was permitted.
A large part of the book is devoted to these first few years of Washoe's life and it can be frightfully amusing at points. Washoe was a mischievous and boisterous youngster who loved playing games and being tickled. At one point Roger describes how she managed to get hold of a bottle of washing-up liquid which she drank. Roger was convinced she was going to die!! She didn't but in his own words 'it cleaned Washoe out like nobodies business and he spend the rest of the day cleaning up Chimpanzee diarrhoea!!
The team of researchers successfully taught Washoe more and more signs. For example EAT, CRY, GO, SIT, SAD, HAPPY, BIRD, PLEASE, CLIMB, CAR, BABY, MINE, PLAY, MORE, BLACK BUGS, SORRY, TREE, CAT, TICKEL, FRUIT, YOU, UP, OUT and many others. By the time she was five Washoe had a vocabulary of around 130 words, today she has a vocabulary of >200 words, which frankly is amazing. Washoe could combine words to form basic sentences, for example: YOU ME OUT; GIVE ME FRUIT; PLEASE PERSON HUG; ME CLIMB TREE.
Sadly though Washoe got too big and too boisterous. Gardner and Gardner proved what they wanted they decided she needed to move somewhere more permanent and secure. Hence in October 1970, Washoe moved to a research lab at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma, Roger Fouts went with her as her primary guardian.
In Oklahoma Washoe had a baby called Sequoyah, but she died of pneumonia within two months. Washoe became withdrawn and wouldn't eat. This is a hugely touching part of the book as illustrated in the following: In the summer of 1982 Kat was newly pregnant, and Washoe doted over her belly, asking about her BABY. Unfortunately, Kat suffered a miscarriage. Knowing that Washoe had lost two of her own children, Kat decided to tell her the truth and signed to her: MY BABY DIED. Washoe looked down to the ground. Then she looked into Kat's eyes and signed CRY, touching her cheek just below the eye. When Kat had to leave that day, Washoe would not let her go. PLEASE PERSON HUG, she signed…..
Washoe became more depressed and was eventually given an 'adopted' baby; Louis. Washoe took to Louis almost immediately and they are still together to this day. The experimental process kicks of here again. The researchers stop speaking verbal English around Washoe again and revert back to only ever using ASL. The point of this is to see whether Washoe would teach her baby signs independently. Using this method over a period of several years Washoe taught Loulis 51 signs completely independently.
A third experiment was also conducted by another group of researchers who looked at the use of signs between three 'unwanted' young chimpanzees who were raised as siblings. These chimpanzees were Tatu, Moja and Dar. They were raised together in the same way and Washoe and it was shown that they were able to communicate between themselves.
In 1981 Washoe and Loulis were eventually moved to Central Washington University where they lived in a make-shift environment until 1993 when the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute was built. The five chimpanzees then moved in together where they have lived since as a strong family unit. Research on the chimps is continuing, for example I worked on a project examining their use of novel and recycled objects with the aim of proving that chimpanzees respond positively to different sources of stimulation. This was proven and hopefully these results can be used to help improve the lives of other captive chimpanzees across the globe.
Much of the story is heartbreakingly sad. Rogers love and obsession for all chimpanzees, especially Washoe, stands out throughout. At points Roger discusses in great detail certain cases where captive chimpanzees have gone mad from being kept in tiny cages with absolutely no stimulation for years on end. The treatment of many captive chimpanzees today is still horrific which is appalling when you consider that they are highly intelligent and out closest relative at 98% genetically identical to us. They have culture, hierarchy and use tools. They raise their young for years in the same way we do and have complex family and group structures. They are amazing animals for whom I have great passion and they are being wiped out because humans continue to hunt them (even though it is now highly illegal) and to destroy the forests in which they reside. These practises need to be stopped and reading this book will make you realise this. It is too late to return captive chimpanzees to their natural habitats, they wound not survive, but hopefully more will be done in the future to ensure that they are kept in humane conditions and are given the respect they deserve.
The book contains a lot of scientific information with regard to the theories and background of language evolution and acquisition. However Fouts writes at a level that almost everyone can enjoy, he uses everyday language so it doesn't get too much. If you aren't interested in the science behind the project then it would be easy to skip over these parts.
Many people criticise the observations which have been made within this book and the many scientific studies that have been published. I'm not going to go into these criticisms. Read the book and decide for yourself…..
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