An ape genius, or just an ordinary talking ape?

In 2001 I travelled to Atlanta, where Sue Savage-Rumbaugh then worked with the language-competent bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha. A question I travelled with concerned the linguistic tests that I had seen in a TV-documentary, Kanzi, an ape of genius.

In these tests, the ape responds to requests in spoken English, uttered by an experimenter who – to avoid cueing Kanzi through extra-linguistic assists like gestures and gazes – stands behind his back, or sits in an adjacent room speaking through a microphone, or covers her face with a welder’s mask. The aim of this experimental design is to distill Kanzi’s comprehension of vocabulary and syntax, the essence of language.

What I wondered was this: how did the experimenters get the ape into the test situation?

In the documentary, Kanzi appears miraculously as if he were nothing but a brilliant subject of scientific experimentation, an ape genius. Sitting on a chair wearing headphones, he picks up photos of grapes, keys, potatoes, people… He responds perfectly reliably, hearing the verbal requests, “Kanzi, give Sue the picture of grapes,” and so on.

How did Kanzi become that brilliant research subject? What happened before the camera was turned on? Does Kanzi spend his days on a chair wearing headphones, just waiting for an experimenter? Probably not, but then what is the relation between his ordinary life and the test situation? Is it irrelevant, since the conditioning anyhow took place in the same kind of scientific situation?

My first question to William M. Fields, who invited me to Atlanta, was: How do you get Kanzi into the experiment? The simplicity of his answer stunned me:

  • “We ask Kanzi if he wants to work.”

In contrast to his half-sister, Panbanisha, who typically refused to play the research subject role, Kanzi usually is willing to work. Then follows negotiations about the food he will have access to during work and which activities and meetings he’ll be granted later because he admits to work.

The filmed tests have a context, but the context isn’t more science. It is Kanzi’s life with other bonobos and with the speaking humans who co-reared young bonobos together with their bonobo mothers. Kanzi is an adult, but a point can be made by comparing him with children who participate in controlled psychological experiments. These children are not raised in a lab. They have a home. Only occasionally are they taken into the lab to participate in science. This often requires quite a bit of negotiation and instruction.

Child participation in psychological experimentation exhibits home/lab duality. The child’s language develops at home and is only tested in the lab. The science that charts the child’s linguistic development doesn’t reflect the more significant context outside of the lab, where the child becomes the speaking being that is being tested.

The child’s life at home is primal. Science plays the second fiddle and doesn’t recreate the vitality that made what is scientifically tested possible.

Animal science rarely exhibits home/lab duality. The animals are conditioned in the same type of controlled situations as those in which they are tested. If an animal picks up laminated photos of keys, it is because it was trained to pick up laminated photos of keys. It doesn’t have a life with doors, cabinets and keys, independently of its scientific disciplining. But Kanzi does.

Like a child whose parents decided to contribute to psychological science, Kanzi is not disciplined as a pure research subject. He became a speaking being at home, in ordinary ape-human ways of life (in an ape-human culture). Only occasionally is he talked and instructed into the lab, to participate in activities that don’t reflect the vibrant home situations in which he became who he is.

Kanzi is no aberrant ape genius. He is just an ordinary talking ape. Home/lab duality enabled him to become one.

(Want to read more? Here are some books.)

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog

One Response to An ape genius, or just an ordinary talking ape?

  1. […] jag skrivit om apspråksforskning där framgångsreceptet är just detta – att inte behandla aporna som forskningssubjekt – så […]

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