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Chimpanzees and Sign Language: Darwinian Realities versus Cartesian Delusions
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Dr. Fouts began his lecture with the story of how he and his wife Deborah became involved with Washoe—the first non-human to acquire the signs of American Sign Language (ASL). Project Washoe began in 1966 with Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner in Reno, Nevada. There had been other experiments that attempted to get chimpanzees to speak. These experiments were not successful due to anatomical and neurological differences between humans and chimpanzees. (Fouts showed some video of the chimpanzee Vicki trying to say the four words she had learned—mama, papa, up, cup.) Part of the issue is the construction of the chimpanzee’s vocal box while another part of the issue is that chimpanzee vocalizations are tied to their limbic system—vocal utterances are triggered by things like excitement and fear. This is true of some human vocalizations as well—hitting your thumb with a hammer often causes utterances you might wish to suppress but which come out of your mouth anyway.

Examples of chimpanzees trying to suppress such vocalizations have been observed as well. Fouts told the story of Jane Goodall, in some of her field work in Tanzania, realizing that allowing access to feeding stations could often lead to fights among the chimpanzees. So, she limited access to the food to times when only one chimpanzee was present. One particular male chimpanzee would often gesture to the rest of the chimpanzees and lead the group away from the feeding station and then return later on his own. When he got access to the food, however, he would vocalize and the other chimpanzees would return. Unable to suppress these vocalizations, he was observed covering his mouth with his hand.

Taking into account such facts about chimpanzee physiology, and the growing realization that chimpanzees use gestures as part of their repertoire of communication strategies, the Gardners decided to construct an experiment to see if a chimpanzee could acquire the signs of ASL. Influenced by Beatrix Gardner’s training as an ethologist, Project Washoe started by trying to use and build on the natural capacities of chimpanzees instead of trying to make chimpanzees fit human expectations.

This attitude led to another important difference in this project. Rather than trying to “train” or “teach” Washoe the signs of ASL, the Gardners would raise her as if she were a deaf human child and give her the opportunity to acquire the signs as part of the normal communicative structure of her family group. (Some of this approach was influenced by the work of psychologist Edwin Guthrie.) So, they cross-fostered Washoe. Cross-fostering is when the adults of one species raise the young of another species as if they were their own young. Washoe lived in a trailer with her extended family—the Gardners and their graduate students. The humans used sign language as they went about the daily routines of eating, bathing, brushing teeth, and playing.

Roger Fouts was one of Washoe’s “playmates”—although the graduate students preferred to be referred to as Washoe’s human companions. Fouts almost did not get the job, though. Seeking an assistantship so he could afford graduate work in psychology at the University of Nevada, he went to interview with Allen Gardner, an experimental psychologist. Fouts was planning to study child clinical psychology. This was the first mark against him in Gardner’s eyes. The interview did not go well as Fouts expressed interest in the philosopher of science Rom Harré, who would be visiting the university while he was there. But then Gardner took Fouts by the playground where Washoe was playing. She came running at them, and instead of jumping into the arms of her surrogate father, she jumped into the arms of Fouts. Washoe had chosen, and Fouts’s life, and the life of his human family, was changed forever.

Fouts began his work as part of Washoe’s family. His book, Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Tell Us About Who We Are (re-titled Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees), recounts many stories of this time. Here he told one story to provide a sense of what life was like. One day he was sitting in the doorway...

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