Chimpanzees and language studies- In the book Unsaid, by Neil Abramson, a chimpanzee’s life hangs in the balance after a veterinarian named Helena dies leaving her friend without support and corroboration as to the chimp’s language abilities. The chimp, Lucy, has been taught to use language, but so far only chooses to do so with her trainer Jaycee and with Helena. Since she won’t ‘perform’ for the man who has the power to get Jaycee’s funding revoked, funding is dropped for the project and Lucy is to be returned to the general NIH primate pool, where she will probably die a painful death as part of a drug study, disease research program or surgery experiment.
So, what is the current status of chimpanzees and language research? How much protection do chimps have when they do demonstrate language ability? After all, we now know that many species have some sort of language within their own societies, but that isn’t stopping those species from being captured and held against their will, and from being tortured in the name of science.
Well, in real life there was a chimp named Washoe, who lived from 1965 to 2007, a lot longer a life than the fictional Lucy had. Washoe knew about 350 words in ASL (American Sigh Language). She passed on some of her language skills to her son as well, clearly a more complex language feat than the fictional Lucy. Washoe was raised as if she was a human child as much as possible, similar to the way Lucy was raised by Jaycee in the book. You can read more about Washoe on wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washoe_%28chimpanzee%29 . There has been some talk about whether chimpanzees should be granted personhood, and there is at least one case going through the courts right now about this. It would take far more than one brief bubblews post to cover the current state of chimpanzee language research or the ethical debates surrounding primate research. No doubt I’ll be posting more on this topic as I come across more interesting tidbits.