News from Central Washington University in Ellensburg tells of the death of Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language (ASL), the matriarch of a small clan of signing chimps who pushed the boundaries on our view of the intelligence of animals, especially the other great apes besides humans.
Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language in a research project in, had been living on Central Washington University’s Ellensburg campus since 1980. Her keepers said she had a vocabulary of about 250 words, although critics contended Washoe and some other primates learned to imitate sign language, but did not develop true language skills.
Between Washoe and her progeny, extended family and students (she taught signing to several others of her species) and the more famous Koko, the gorilla who speaks ASL, our ideas of the learning ability of animals, their achievements dramatically challenged our ideas about the moral sense of animals, and the uniform and universal superiority of humans.
Fouts and the researchers at the University of Nevada raised several chimps who were taught ASL. One of the more interesting, to me, and genuinely thought-provoking stories was of one young chimp who attended church with her human family. She asked questions about church, and eventually asked to be be baptized (the local cleric performed the rite). This is a Rubicon of great import to creationists, and I have yet to find one who isn’t inflamed or enraged by the story one way or another.
Roger Fouts lovingly described Washoe’s life and accomplishments in Next of Kin (including the baptism story). Fouts defends the rights of chimpanzees, His accounts of the life of research chimpanzees trouble anyone with a moral sense. This book troubled me when I first read it almost a decade ago, and I find it still haunts me any time I visit a display of animals, in a zoo, aquarium, or even at a wildlife preserve (I have not been to a circus since I read the book, coincidentally).
Just wait until cetaceans and cephalopods figure out how to use ASL.
Further reading and resources:
- More books on chimpanzees, signing and research from the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute
- The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond’s book on evolution of humans, separating from other chimpanzees; at that Science Daily site, see also other, related links
- The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org
- “A conversation with Koko,” PBS’s Nature
- Alan Alda and “Scientific American Frontiers,” transcript of “Animal Einsteins,” a program featuring Washoe and Alex, the late African grey parrott.
- Washoe was also featured on NOVA in 1974, in a program titled “The First Signs of Washoe.” I cannot find that this program is either available on video in any form, or available for broadcast.