April 14, 1998
She Talks to Apes and, According to Her, They Talk Back
By CLAUDIA DREIFUS
r. Emily Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, 52, a researcher at Georgia State University in Decatur, Ga., studies communication among primates and runs a 55-acre laboratory near Atlanta where she trains animals and humans to communicate with each other.
She is the author of "Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind," and, with Stuart G. Shanker and Talbot J. Taylor, is a co-author of "Ape Language and the Human Mind," to be published next month by Oxford University Press.
Q. Do your apes speak?
A. They don't speak. They point to printed symbols on a keyboard. Their vocal tract isn't like ours, and they don't make human noises. However, they do make all kinds of ape noises. And I believe they use them to communicate with one another. Now, the apes may not always elect to talk about the same things we do. They might not have a translation for every word in our vocabulary to theirs. But from what I've seen, I believe they are communicating very complex things.
Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, one of our researchers, Mary Chiepelo was out in the yard with Panbanisha. Mary thought she heard a squirrel and so she took the keyboard and said, 'There's a squirrel.' And Panbanisha said 'DOG.' Not very much later, three dogs appeared and headed in the direction of the building where Kanzi was.
Mary asked Panbanisha, 'Does Kanzi see the dogs?' And Panbanish looked at Mary and said, 'A-frame.' A-frame is a specific sector of the forest here that has an A-frame hut on it. Mary later went up to 'A-frame' and found the fresh footprints of dogs everywhere at the site. Panbanisha knew where they were without seeing them.
And that seems to be the kind of information that apes transmit to each other: 'There's a dangerous animal around. It's a dog and it's coming towards you.'
Q. Your apes watch a great deal of TV -- why?
A. Because their lives are so confined. They can expand their world by watching television.
Q. What do they watch?
A. This varies. They like the home videos we make about events happening to people they know from around the lab. They like suspenseful stories, with an interesting resolution. Of movies we buy, they really like films about human beings trying to relate to some kind of ape-like creatures. So they like 'Tarzan,' 'Iceman,' 'Quest for Fire,' the Clint Eastwood movies with the orangutan.
Q. You have a game with the apes, 'Monster,' where a lab staffer dresses up in a gorilla suit and feigns being frightful. Why?
A. It's a game started some years ago when when we were working with two chimps, Sherman and Austin. We discovered that if someone dressed up in a gorilla suit and we drove this 'monster' off with poundings of hammers and sticks, we upped our status with the chimps. In other words, 'We're not the experimenters, in charge. We're your helpers.' Sherman and Austin didn't know we were playing. For a while Kanzi and Panbanisha didn't either. But they caught on soon enough and now they love the game...
...Another time, Panbanisha and I were walking around the building where Sherman and Mercury, this male chimpanzee with a big interest in Panbanisha, lives. Mercury came outside and was being really bad, displaying, throwing bark, and spitting at Panbanisha. So Panbanisha opened her backpack, where there was a gorilla mask inside and she pointed to symbols on the keyboard and asked Mary to play 'Monster.' Mary did that, and Mercury flew indoors.
Panbanisha was able to use the game to stop him from displaying at her. She knew it was pretend. He didn't.
Q. How do you know when the chimps point to symbols on the keyboard that they are not just pointing to any old thing?
A. We test Kanzi and Panbanisha by either saying English words or showing them pictures. We know that they can find the symbol that corresponds to the word or the picture. If we give similar tests to their siblings who haven't learned language -- they fail.
Many times, we can verify through actions. For instance, if Kanzi says 'Apple chase,' which means he wants to play a game of keep away with an apple, we say, 'Yes, let's do.' And then, he picks up an apple and runs away and smiles at us.
Q. Some of your critics say that all your apes do is mimic you?
A. If they were mimicking me, they would repeat just what I'm saying, and they don't. They answer my questions. We also have data that shows that only about two percent of their utterances are immediate imitations of ours.
Q. Nonetheless, many in the scientific community accuse you of over-interpreting what your apes do.
A. There are SOME who say that. But none of them have been willing to come spend some time here. I've tried to invite critics down here. None have taken me up on it. I've invited Tom Sebeok (of Indiana University) personally and he never responded. I think his attitude was something to the effect that, 'It's so clear that what is happening is either cued, or in some way over-interpreted, that a visit is not necessary.' I would assume that many of the people associated with the Chomskyian perspective including Noam Chomsky himself have the same approach: that there's no point in observing something they're certain doesn't exist.
Their belief is that there is a thing called human language and that unless Kanzi does everything a human can, he doesn't have it. They refuse to consider what Kanzi does -- which is comprehend, as language. And it's not even a matter of disagreeing over what Kanzi does. It's a matter of disagreeing over what to call these facts. They are asking Kanzi to do everything that humans do, which is specious. He'll never do that. It still doesn't negate what he can do.
Q. Your husband, Dr. Duane M. Rumbaugh, is a distinguished comparative psychologist who is a pioneer in the study of ape language. Has your research been helped by the fact that your personal life is so fused with your professional life?
A. Without our being together, I don't think that one could ever be responsible for as many apes as we have here. Duane and I live right near the research center and we're willing to go there day and night, 365 days a year. If an ape is sick, if one of the apes has gotten free, if Panbanisha is frightened because she's heard the river's about to flood, we go.
There have been lots of frictions, though. Duane was very, very upset when I began taking the apes out of their cages. And when I began to say that Lana (Duane's chimp) didn't understand some of the things she was saying and that comprehension of language was important, not just production -- we almost broke up over that.
But we really love each other, and we're united in our core beliefs: that there is a huge capacity on the part of apes and probably all kinds of other animals that's being ignored. By ignoring it, humans are separating ourselves from the natural world we've evolved from. The bonobos are a real bridge to that world. At base, no matter how much Duane and I argue, we both know this is true.