Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments by Eugene Linden (Times Books: $17.95)
Most working scientists belong to the mainstream, agreeing more than they disagree with each other about the basics of their fields. The system is maintained by the pressures of academic promotions, peer review, government grants and, happily, the truth.
In the shadows is fringe science, where a few renegades keep alive ideas that establishment scientists pooh-pooh. They like to point to people in the history of science who were dismissed at first but who later turned out to be right, such as Galileo and Alfred Wegener, whose theory of continental drift was laughed at before plate tectonics provided a mechanism for it.
Nowadays, the idea that chimpanzees can be taught to use sign language to communicate complex thoughts to humans belongs to fringe science. It didn’t start out that way.
Fifteen years ago, there was much excitement about apes and humans communicating in American Sign Language. But the weight of scientific thought now says that the language ability of chimps and gorillas has been greatly exaggerated. Far from understanding grammar and using it to create new thoughts, this argument says, when monkeys use sign language they are accomplishing no more nor less than dogs do when they sit on command.
As a result of this conclusion, the heralded language experiments with the great apes have ended. Chimpanzees today are used in AIDS research, not language research. The few remaining proponents of communication with apes are angry about what has happened to the chimps and bitter about what they consider the blindness of science to their claims.
Eugene Linden is a science writer who is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of communication with apes. He has written two previous books on the subject. In his new book, he relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and on his personal experiences with these animals, whom he imbues with human consciousness.
Describing a visit to several of the chimps who had learned sign language but are no longer called on to use it, Linden writes: “I left with the feeling that sign language was an important means of contact with humanity for these chimps. It must be somewhat mystifying to them that no one seems to care about communicating with them in this way anymore.”
How he knows that the monkeys were mystified he does not explain. He just knows it. But it is not difficult to understand the conviction. Anyone who has ever loved a pet knows the feeling that animals can understand what they are told and respond intelligently. People without pets tend to regard these stories with skepticism.
Linden’s purpose is to bring readers up to date on the language experiments, the people who conducted them and the animals who were their subjects. He succeeds only in the third, and even there, his polemic against the abuse of humanity’s closest living relative detracts from the story he tells, which would be more effective if he just let the facts speak for themselves.
Communication with apes was much discussed during the 1970s, but it was dealt a serious blow in 1979 with the publication of “Nim” by Herbert Terrace of Columbia University, who had spent four years trying to teach sign language to the chimp Nim Chimpsky (named after the linguist Noam Chomsky) only to conclude that the ape didn’t really understand a thing. The following year, the New York Academy of Sciences held a two-day conference at which almost every speaker took Terrace’s side against the experimenters.
Sincere Animal Lovers
Linden makes short shrift of Terrace and instead presents sympathetic portraits of Roger Fouts, Penny Patterson and Janis Carter, among others, animal lovers who have sincerely and honestly devoted many years to teaching and living with great apes. The animals they worked with, Washoe, Koko and Lucy, were probably better known than their trainers.
But despite Linden’s obvious approval of their work, he fails to bring these researchers to life. The reader has no clue as to what motivates these people other than their conviction (and Linden’s) that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong.
One of the researchers, Janis Carter, has given up her life in the United States and moved to an island in The Gambia, located on the west coast of Africa, where she maintains a colony of retired signing chimps. What kind of person would do this? If Linden thought about that question, he doesn’t say. Carter’s actions are simply accepted as proof of her commitment.
Now that the experiments are over, Linden is rightly concerned about the welfare of the animals who participated in them. Only a handful of the well-known chimps continue to receive special protection. Most have become part of the stock of chimpanzees used in medical research.
A Plea for Chimps
Adult male chimps are a problem. They are strong and difficult to handle, and once they have been used in a medical experiment, their usefulness in other experiments goes down, assuming that they are still alive. What to do with these animals, who may live for years, is a troubling issue. Linden makes a plea on their behalf.
From time to time, Linden adopts a neutral stance toward the subject, acknowledging the other side’s arguments, which he then attributes to the hubris of humans in believing that only they are endowed with language and reason. He makes the common mistake of believing that those who disagree with him have less-pure motives than his own.
Though it would be nice to believe that monkeys can communicate with people--even tell jokes and make up rhymes--the evidence does not support that conclusion. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which the language experimenters do not have. More should be done for the chimps in captivity, whether they can talk to us or not. But don’t expect them to say thank you.