In the late Sixties and early Seventies several experiments were begun to test whether or not a non-human primate could construct a sentence. Several species were involved in these various experiments including the chimpanzees Washoe
, a gorilla named Koko
, and later in the Eighties work began with a bonobo named Kanzi
. While great progress was made in teaching these primates a vocabulary, it would be difficult to see any of these experiments as a success. And all of these projects raised important questions about the ethics
of such experiments.
The first related experiment occurred in 1932 when Luella and Winthrop Kellogg brought a one-year-old chimpanzee named Gua
into their homes and began to raise her along side their 16-month-old son Donald. After two years the experiment ended and Gua was returned to the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. In less than a year after being separated from her human stepbrother, Gua died of pneumonia. Kellogg cited concern over his son's regressed development and his mimicry of chimp behavior as reasons for ending the experiment. Donald would later commit suicide in 1972.
Three decades later, after some early language experiments
using magnetic symbols and metal boards, and a few less than successful attempts at training chimpanzees to vocalize words
, researchers began to try using American Sign Language to teach non-human primates a vocabulary. Again young non-human primates were raised in human homes, often alongside human children, in an attempt to teach them language.
The first such project involved a chimpanzee named Washoe, raised with researchers Beatrix
and Allen Gardner's family. Washoe was exposed to only ASL as an infant and learned approximately 350 signs. Eventually Washoe moved to Central Washington University where she died in 2007. She was 42.
From Teaching Sign Language to the Chimpanzee
R.A. Gardner & B.T. Gardner
Sign Langauge and Washoe - the beginning.
Washoe uses novel word combinations with syntax.
Washoe, age 4.
From: Washoe: Apes and Sign Language
by R.A. Gardner & B.T. Gardner
Washoe and the Family Teach Loulis to Use Sign Language.
Following Washoe was Nim, in an experiment conducted by Columbia Psychologist Herbert Terrace
. Nim was first raised with Stephanie LaFarge's family, but eventually became too aggressive to stay. He later worked with Laura-Ann Petitto
and Bob Ingersoll
. In 1979, Terrace and Petitto co-authored a paper
declaring the experiment a failure, citing the Clever Hans
effect for what appeared to be language acquisition in Nim. Nim's vocabulary had expanded to 125 signs by the time the project ended. Eventually Columbia sold Nim to a medical experimentation lab, but a public outcry about the sale resulted in Nim's eventual placement at author Cleveland Amory's animal rescue preserve, Black Beauty Ranch
. Nim died there on March 10th, 2000, at the age of 26.
Earlier this year a documentary titled Project Nim
based on Elizabeth Hess's
, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human
, was released.
The 1989 movie Animal Behavior
is a fictionalized story loosely based on Nim and Petitto.
Fresh Air devoted an entire episode to the documentary.
Meanwhile, Francince "Penny" Patterson
was beginning to work with a young gorilla named Koko
. According to Penny Patterson, Koko is able to understand more than 1,000 signs based on ASL. Koko is also known for a book about her and her pet kitten which she named All Ball
. Koko has lived and worked with Penny Patterson for almost her entire life. Koko recently celebrated her 40th birthday
with Patterson at their home in California. In 1978 Koko was also the subject of a documentary titled Koko: A Talking Gorilla
, and 8
took a slightly different approach in attempting to teach language to bonobos. Rather than using sign language, Savage-Rumbaugh
did some early work using lexigrams, symbols that represent words, but which do not look like the things they represent. Her work with Kanzi has been the most successful. Kanzi understands over 200 lexigrams and can point to them when hearing them spoken in English. He also seems to have picked up a little ASL
that he may have learned from watching video tapes of Koko. In 1993, Japan's NHK made a documentary about Kanzi called Kanzi - An Ape of Genius
). Kanzi continues to work with Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh at Georgia State University's Language Research Center.