It’s World Animal Week this week and I thought a good way to begin was to read Carl Sagan’s “The Abstraction of Beasts” to provoke change for the way we view animals. It’s not the full text but close with most of the poignant entries about very human like qualities apes possess minus a few paragraphs dealing with brain mass vs body mass. It’s well worth reading.
THE ABSTRACTION OF BEASTS by Carl Sagan
BEASTS ABSTRACT NOT,” announced John Locke, expressing mankind’s prevailing opinion throughout recorded history. Bishop Berkeley had, however, a sardonic rejoinder: “If the fact that brutes abstract not be made the distinguishing property of that sort of animal, I fear a great many of those that pass for men must be reckoned into their number.” Abstract thought, at least in its more subtle varieties, is not an invariable accompaniment of everyday life for the average man. Could abstract thought be a matter not of kind but of degree? Could other animals be capable of abstract thought but more rarely or less deeply than humans?
We have the impression that other animals are not very intelligent. But have we examined the possibility of animal intelligence carefully enough, or, as in Francois Truffaut’s poignant film The Wild Child, do we simply equate the absence of our style of expression of intelligence with the absence of intelligence? In discussing communication with the animals, the French philosopher Montaigne remarked, “The defect that hinders communication between them and us, why may it not be on our part as well as theirs?”
There is, of course, a considerable body of anecdotal information suggesting chimpanzee intelligence. The first serious study of the behavior of simians-including their behavior in the wild-was made in Indonesia by Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. Wallace concluded that a baby orangutan he studied behaved “exactly like a human child in similar circumstances.” In fact, “orangutan” is a Malay phrase meaning not ape but “man of the woods.” Teuber recounted many stories told by his parents, pioneer German ethnologists who founded and operated the first research station devoted to chimpanzee behavior on Tenerife in the Canary Islands early in the second decade of this century. It was here that Wolfgang Kohler performed his famous studies of Sultan, a chimpanzee “genius” who was able to connect two rods in order to reach an otherwise inaccessible banana. On Tenerife, also, two chimpanzees were observed maltreating a chicken: One would extend some food to the fowl, encouraging it to approach; whereupon the other would thrust at it with a piece of wire it had concealed behind its back. The chicken would retreat but soon allow itself to approach once again-and be beaten once again. Here is a fine combination of behavior sometimes thought to be uniquely human: cooperation, planning a future course of action, deception and cruelty. It also reveals that chickens have a very low capacity for avoidance learning.
Until a few years ago, the most extensive attempt to communicate with chimpanzees went something like this: A newborn chimp was taken into a household with a newborn baby, and both would be raised together-twin cribs, twin bassinets, twin high chairs, twin potties, twin diaper pails, twin baby powder cans. At the end of three years, the young chimp had, of course, far outstripped the young human in manual dexterity, running, leaping, climbing and other motor skills. But while the child was happily babbling away, the chimp could say only, and with enormous difficulty, “Mama,” “Papa,” and “cup.” From this it was widely concluded that in language, reasoning and other higher mental functions, chimpanzees were only minimally competent: “Beasts abstract not.”
But in thinking over these experiments, two psychologists, Beatrice and Robert Gardner, at the University of Nevada realized that the pharynx and larynx of the chimp are not suited for human speech. Human beings exhibit a curious multiple use of the mouth for eating, breathing and communicating. In insects such as crickets, which call to one another by rubbing their legs, these three functions are performed by completely separate organ systems. Human spoken language seems to be adventitious.
But in thinking over these experiments, two psychologists, Beatrice and Robert Gardner, at the University of Nevada realized that the pharynx and larynx of the chimp are not suited for human speech. Human beings exhibit a curious multiple use of the mouth for eating, breathing and communicating. In insects such as crickets, which call to one another by rubbing their legs, these three functions are performed by completely separate organ systems. Human spoken language seems to be adventitious. The exploitation of organ systems with other functions for communication in humans is also indicative of the comparatively recent evolution of our linguistic abilities. It might be, the Gardner’s reasoned, that chimpanzees have substantial language abilities which could not be expressed because of the limitations of their anatomy. Was there any symbolic language, they asked, that could employ the strengths rather than the weaknesses of chimpanzee anatomy?
The Gardner’s hit upon a brilliant idea: Teach a chimpanzee American sign language, known by its acronym Ameslan, and sometimes as “American deaf and dumb language” (the “dumb” refers, of course, to the inability to speak and not to any failure of intelligence). It is ideally suited to the immense manual dexterity of the chimpanzee. It also may have all the crucial design features of verbal languages.
There is by now a vast library of described and filmed conversations, employing Ameslan and other gestural languages, with Washoe, Lucy, Lana and other chimpanzees studied by the Gardners and others. Not only are there chimpanzees with working vocabularies of 100 to 200 words; they are also able to distinguish among nontrivially different grammatical patterns and syntaxes. What is more, they have been remarkably inventive in the construction of new words and phrases.
On seeing for the first time a duck land quacking in a pond, Washoe gestured “waterbird,” which is the same phrase used in English and other languages, but which Washoe invented for the occasion. Having never seen a spherical fruit other than an apple, but knowing the signs for the principal colors, Lana, upon spying a technician eating an orange, signed “orange apple.” After tasting a watermelon, Lucy described it as “candy drink” or “drink fruit,” which is essentially the same word form as the English “water melon.” But after she had burned her mouth on her first radish, Lucy forever after described them as “cry hurt food.” A small doll placed unexpectedly in Washoe’s cup elicited the response “Baby in my drink.” When Washoe soiled, particularly clothing or furniture, she was taught the sign “dirty,” which she then extrapolated as a general term of abuse. A rhesus monkey that evoked her displeasure was repeatedly signed at: “Dirty monkey, dirty monkey, dirty monkey.”Occasionally Washoe would say things like “Dirty Jack, gimme drink.” Lana, in a moment of creative annoyance, called her trainer “You green shit.” Chimpanzees have invented swear words. Was-hoe also seems to have a sort of sense of humor; once, when riding on her trainer’s shoulders and, perhaps inadvertently, wetting him, she signed: “Funny, funny.”
Lucy was eventually able to distinguish clearly the meanings of the phrases “Roger tickle Lucy” and “Lucy tickle Roger,” both of which activities she enjoyed with gusto. Likewise, Lana extrapolated from “Tim groom Lana” to “Lana groom Tim.” Washoe was observed “reading” a magazine-i.e., slowly turning the pages, peering intently at the pictures and making, to no one in particular, an appropriate sign, such as “cat” when viewing a photograph of a tiger, and “drink” when examining a Vermouth advertisement. Having learned the sign “open” with a door, Washoe extended the concept to a briefcase. She also attempted to converse in Ameslan with the laboratory cat, who turned out to be the only illiterate in the facility. Having acquired this marvelous method of communication, Washoe may have been surprised that the cat was not also competent in Ameslan. And when one day Jane, Lucy’s foster mother, left the laboratory, Lucy gazed after her and signed: “Cry me. Me cry.”
Boyce Rensberger is a sensitive and gifted reporter for the New York Times whose parents could neither speak nor hear, although he is in both respects normal. His first language, however, was Ameslan. He had been abroad on a European assignment for the Times for some years. On his return to the United States, one of his first domestic duties was to look into the Gardners’ experiments with Washoe. After some little time with the chimpanzee, Rensberger reported, “Suddenly I realized I was conversing with a member of another species in my native tongue.” The use of the word tongue is, of course, figurative: it is built deeply into the structure of the language (a word that also means “tongue”). In fact, Rensberger was conversing with a member of another species in his native “hand.” And it is just this transition from tongue to hand that has permitted humans to regain the ability-lost, according to Josephus, since Eden-to communicate with the animals.
In addition to Ameslan, chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates are being taught a variety of other gestural languages. At the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, they are learning a specific computer language called (by the humans, not the chimps) “Yerkish.” The computer records all of its subjects’ conversations, even during the night when no humans are in attendance; and from its ministrations we have learned that chimpanzees prefer jazz to rock and movies about chimpanzees to movies about human beings. Lana had, by January 1976, viewed The Developmental Anatomy of the Chimpanzee 245 times. She would undoubtedly appreciate a larger film library.
The machine provides for many of Lana’s needs, but not all. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she forlornly types out: “Please, machine, tickle Lana.”) More elaborate requests and commentaries, each requiring a creative use of a set grammatical form, have been developed subsequently.
Lana monitors her sentences on a computer display, and erases those with grammatical errors. Once, in the midst of Lana’s construction of an elaborate sentence, her trainer mischievously and repeatedly interposed, from his separate computer console, a word that made nonsense of Lana’s sentence. She gazed at her computer display, spied her trainer at his console, and composed a new sentence: “Please, Tim, leave room.” Just as Washoe and Lucy can be said to speak, Lana can be said to write.
At an early stage in the development of Washoe’s verbal abilities, Jacob Bronowski and a colleague wrote a scientific paper denying the significance of Washoe’s use of gestural language because, in the limited data available to Bronowski, Washoe neither inquired nor negated. But later observations showed that Washoe and other chimpanzees were perfectly able both to ask questions and to deny assertions put to them. And it is difficult to see any significant difference in quality between chimpanzee use of gestural language and the use of ordinary speech by children in a manner that we unhesitatingly attribute to intelligence. In reading Bronowski’s paper I cannot help but feel that a little pinch of human chauvinism has crept in, an echo of Locke’s “Beasts abstract not.” In 1949, the American anthropologist Leslie White stated unequivocally: “Human behavior is symbolic behavior; symbolic behavior is human behavior.” What would White have made of Washoe, Lucy and Lana?
Because adult chimpanzees are generally thought (at least by zookeepers) to be too dangerous to retain in a home or home environment, Washoe and other verbally accomplished chimpanzees have been involuntarily “retired” soon after reaching puberty. Thus we do not yet have experience with the adult language abilities of monkeys and apes. One of the most intriguing questions is whether a verbally accomplished chimpanzee mother will be able to communicate language to her offspring. It seems very likely that this should be possible and that a community of chimps initially competent in gestural language could pass down the language to subsequent generations.
Differences in group behavior-something that it is very tempting to call cultural differences-have been reported among chimpanzees, baboons, macaques and many other primates. For example, one group of monkeys may know how to eat bird’s eggs, while an adjacent band of precisely the same species may not. Such primates have a few dozen sounds or cries, which are used for intra-group communication, with such meanings as “Flee; here is a predator.” But the sound of the cries differs somewhat from group to group: there are regional accents.
An even more striking experiment was performed accidentally by Japanese primatologists attempting to relieve an overpopulation and hunger problem in a community of macaques on an island in south Japan. The anthropologists threw grains of wheat on a sandy beach. Now it is very difficult to separate wheat grains one by one from sand grains; such an effort might even expend more energy than eating the collected wheat would provide. But one brilliant macaque, Imo, perhaps by accident or out of pique, threw handfuls of the mixture into the water. Wheat floats; sand sinks, a fact that Imo clearly noted. Through the sifting process she was able to eat well (on a diet of soggy wheat, to be sure). While older macaques, set in their ways, ignored her, the younger monkeys appeared to grasp the importance of her discovery, and imitated it. In the next generation, the practice was more widespread; today all macaques on the island are competent at water sifting, an example of a cultural tradition among the monkeys.
Earlier studies on Takasakiyama, a mountain in northeast Kyushu inhabited by macaques, show a similar pattern in cultural evolution. Visitors to Takasakiyama threw caramels wrapped in paper to the monkeys – a common practice in Japanese zoos, but one the Takasakiyama macaques had never before encountered. In the course of play, some young monkeys discovered how to unwrap the caramels and eat them. The habit was passed on successively to their playmates, their mothers, the dominant males (who among the macaques act as babysitters for the very young) and finally to the subadult males, who were at the furthest social remove from the monkey children. The process of acculturation took more than three years. In natural primate communities, the existing nonverbal communications are so rich that there is little pressure for the development of a more elaborate gestural language. But if gestural language were necessary for chimpanzee survival, there can be little doubt that it would be transmitted culturally down through the generations.
I would expect a significant development and elaboration of language in only a few generations if all the chimps unable to communicate were to die or fail to reproduce. Basic English corresponds to about 1,000 words. Chimpanzees are already accomplished in vocabularies exceeding 10 percent of that number. Although a few years ago it would have seemed the most implausible science fiction, it does not appear to me out of the question that, after a few generations in such a verbal chimpanzee community, there might emerge the memoirs of the natural history and mental life of a chimpanzee, published in English or Japanese (with perhaps an “as told to” after the by-line).
If chimpanzees have consciousness, if they are capable of abstractions, do they not have what until now has been described as “human rights”? How smart does a chimpanzee have to be before killing him constitutes murder? What further properties must he show before religious missionaries must consider him worthy of attempts at conversion?
I recently was escorted through a large primate research laboratory by its director. We approached a long corridor lined, to the vanishing point as in a perspective drawing, with caged chimpanzees. They were one, two or three to a cage, and I am sure the accommodations were exemplary as far as such institutions (or for that matter traditional zoos) go. As we approached the nearest cage, its two inmates bared their teeth and with incredible accuracy let fly great sweeping arcs of spittle, fairly drenching the lightweight suit of the facility’s director. They then uttered a staccato of short shrieks, which echoed down the corridor to be repeated and amplified by other caged chimps, who had certainly not seen us, until the corridor fairly shook with the screeching and banging and rattling of bars. The director informed me that not only spit is apt to fly in such a situation; and at his urging we retreated.
I was powerfully reminded of those American motion pictures of the 1930s and 40s, set in some vast and dehumanized state or federal penitentiary, in which the prisoners banged their eating utensils against the bars at the appearance of the tyrannical warden. These chimps are healthy and well-fed. If they are “only” animals, if they are beasts which abstract not, then my comparison is a piece of sentimental foolishness. But chimpanzees can abstract. Like other mammals, they are capable of strong emotions. They have certainly committed no crimes. I do not claim to have the answer, but I think it is certainly worthwhile to raise the question: Why, exactly, all over the civilized world, in virtually every major city, are apes in prison?
For all we know, occasional viable crosses between humans and chimpanzees are possible. The natural experiment must have been tried very infrequently, at least recently. If such off-spring are ever produced, what will their legal status be? The cognitive abilities of chimpanzees force us, I think, to raise searching questions about the boundaries of the community of beings to which special ethical considerations are due, and can, I hope, help to extend our ethical perspectives downward through the taxa on Earth and upwards to extraterrestrial organisms, if they exist.