Primate language scientist named in Time Magazine’s 100 influential people

Posted on April 25, 2011

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Easter is always a busy time for me as a freelance journalist; I’m what’s known as “filler” in the businesses. After a particularly hectic day reporting this weekend I grabbed a pint with a colleague (Karate Kid) at my local.

We spoke about how my studies were going and this led onto a discussion about whether apes (given they have large brains) can actually communicate with people using a common language. Animal communication is a huge area of study and an area of on-debate among behavioural scientists. There have been numerous studies conducted on communication that range from insects to primates. Intra-species communication is very complex let alone communication between different species.

Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and bonobo, Teco

Yes there have been studies where chimpanzees have been taught sign language, but do they truly understand the meaning behind these words? They can tell us what they want: “food”, “drink”, “ball”. But having a lucid conversation is still a far-reaching notion. Karate Kid in a moment of madness, did toy with idea of proposing we interview a chimp live on TV. I told him that not only would that cause animal rights people to storm the studio, but it would make car-crash viewing, because the chimp would simply wreck the studio and probably lamp the presenter.

Noam Chomsky and other psycho-linguists have argued that only humans can learn a language, but some behaviourists have argued that with sufficient patience it should be possible to teach an animal some sort of language.

In a study carried by authors Kellogg and Kellogg (1967) they raised a chimp named Gua alongside their own child, Donald. Chimps are believed to have the same cognitive and mental ability of a three-year-old, but they don’t appear to have the same language capability. By the time Gua was 16 months old, she had a receptive vocabulary of about 100 words. She understood certain words but she made no attempts to ‘speak’ or to try to communicate using language. In the 1970’s a female chimp named Washoe was also taught more than 240 signs; and in the 1980’s to-date a bonobo  (one of the great ape species, also known as the pygmy chimpanzee Pan paniscus) named Kanzi is still being studied.

Scientists have concluded that although apes have a remarkable memory that enables them to master hundreds of visual signs, there is still little evidence to prove they understand syntax.

One American scientist who conducts language research with bonobos, Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, has been named in Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. For 35 years, Savage-Rumbaugh has been working with bonobos like Kanzi, and his son, Teco. She has been breaking barriers by communicating with pictograms, talking with her apes and challenging pre-conceived notions. She is hoping to help change the way humans view other members of the primate order.

On hearing about the list, she told Time Magazine, the real stars are her co-workers, the bonobos: “This is really wonderful, but it is more than wonderful because it opens the door that I have been trying to open for a very, very long time, because people will listen with new ears and see with new eyes.”

Teco a baby bonobo

The 64-year-old was born in Missouri and  has a doctorate degree in psychology from the University of Oklahoma. She’s worked since 2005 at Great Ape Trust after 30 years with Georgia State University’s Language Research Center.

Atlanta’s Emory University primate professor Frans De Waal, wrote in Time magazine: “There is much to admire in Sue’s work: the dedication it takes to work a lifetime with just a few apes; the way she has introduced the world to the little-known bonobo — a species I call the make-love, not war, ape.

“Mostly, there is the courage it takes to stand up to the resistance she still encounters to the idea that humans may be less special than we think. Her work has punched holes in the wall separating us from them. But rather than diminishing us, it puts our remarkable gifts in a broader context.”

Dr Savage-Rumbaugh shares this year’s list with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, television host Oprah Winfrey, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Wikileaks editor Julian Assange, and the British actor Colin Firth.

Here’s short video of Dr Savage-Rumbaugh and her apes.

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