Keep the Banana Supply comin’, Monkey Boy!

Back in the late 1970’s I started to hear about some amazing research that was being done with primates. Researchers were teaching them to talk using American Sign Language.

This was particularly interesting to me because I was very interested in the outdoors. The 1970’s was the Time of the Great Extinction, or so it seemed. There were all of these doom and gloom stories in the press about acid rain, the reduction of biodiversity and looming ecological calamity that was just around the corner. If it could be proven that some primates could communicate, that they actually had an intellect that was similar to a human’s in some respects, then the arguement to protect primate species would be strengthened.

But nothing happened. A chimp never got up to address Congress or testify in front of the Supreme Court. In fact, there was a rather thunderous lack of content from the researchers that were tasked with teaching the apes ASL. So I started to pay attention to what they were doing.

It was easier to tell what was going on by what the researchers were not saying than by what they would tell us. They’d release films of the ape signing, but that’s all it would be. A very short film segment showing the ape making a single sign. If we were lucky it would show the ape making a string of two or three signs, but they would always be signs that wouldn’t make much sense when strung together. (“Ball, drink, sad.” Real Shakespeare here, folks.) There would be no way in the world for anyone to tell if the creature was actually trying to communicate or if it was just aping (heh) what the researchers were doing.

But I found it particularly telling that they would refuse to allow anyone who knew ASL to interact with the ape unless they were part of the research group.

There were a few reasons they gave for this, of course. They said that the ape was used to it’s handlers and would become confused if faced with an unfamiliar human making sign. They said that the apes were non-humans, so they viewed the world in a fundamentally different way than we did and so it was difficult to know what they were talking about unless someone was used to their mind set.

And they said that the apes were much stronger than human beings. Although not agressive by nature, if they became upset they could harm or kill a human being simply by grabbing and pulling real hard.

None of these excuses stand up to more than casual scrutiny. The primate could be confined behind a plexiglass wall, or even in a cage, so it couldn’t harm the outside observer that wanted to talk to it. There are speech therapists for the deaf, people who are skilled at making sense of broken ASL speech, so they’d be able to make sense of the ape’s odd signing patterns very quickly. And the staff that interacts with the primates changes every so often, so we know that they can get used to new people over time.

So why do I want someone other than the researchers involved to talk to the apes?

On the one hand is the fact that science is all about outside confimation. Some scientist that makes a big discovery might very well be too emotionally caught up in the visions of fame and fortune to reliably judge whether the discovery is valid. Sometimes whole countries are taken in by this.

Another reason I’d like to see some outside confirmation is the fact that it’s big business to train an ape in ASL. Not only are we talking about the grants such a high-profile research project would bring, but there’s money in lectures and book sales. Big, big money.

This is why I smelled a scam. It’s a pretty elegant scam, but it looks like a scam all the same.

One thing that goes a long way to confirm the scam charge is that they’ve let funnyman Robin Williams interact with Koko, the most famous and profitable of the ASL apes.

So trained professionals that might be able to tell once and for all if non-human primates have the capacity for language are barred from directly interacting with the ape, but they let Robin Williams sit in her lap? Why would they do that?

Pay attention to the video clip and you’ll see why. Williams is asking for money.

You’ll also see all of the things that first made me suspicious displayed in the clip. They show Koko signing, but they don’t provide any context to her signs. Is she saying something or just randomly repeating stuff she’s seen? Nothing like careful editing to make it look lie there’s a real conversation going on. I think they did that in an old TV show.

Let’s be very clear here. No one would be more delighted than I would to find out that there’s another species with the ability to reason. But they’ve had 40 years to come up with something concrete, and so far they’ve failed every time while the money involved just kept on getting bigger. So please forgive me if I refrain from giving to any charity that Koko endorses.

(Hat tip to MTPolitics for the video link that inspired me to write this screed.)

5 thoughts on “Keep the Banana Supply comin’, Monkey Boy!”

  1. I remember years ago (late ’70s?) they had Washoe the chimp on the Nova TV show, supposedly making up her own words and teaching sign language to her young, etc. I remember thinking all this was really cool. My Dad, a physicist by training and one of the most rigidly empirical men who has ever walked the Earth, was watching it too. His verdict, a dismissive wave of the hand, and the simple pronouncement “horseshit”. I think he was onto something.

  2. Well, the folks at the Great Ape Project ( are still around. I thought I had read a couple of years ago that legal professors at several top law schools were helping with the project but I can’t verify that on any site I’ve looked at. Who knows, maybe their day in court will come. And if they win – well, the ramifications will make the legalization of gay marriages look trivial.

  3. Funny, I think the doom and gloom from the enviro wackos in the 70’s may be from all the drugs they took in the 60’s ;)

  4. The ASL experiments with chimps were unrigorous in a lot of ways. I also saw film of them, and I agree that they were horseshit.

    However, there was a separate experiment, done well, using bonobos chimps. It did not use ASL; rather, the experimenter created a synthetic language with a regular structure. The “words” were not vague hand gestures, but rather were symbols on a board. To “say” a word, you touched the symbol for that word.

    I saw film of this experiment and I was totally convinced that the bonobos chimps were actually using language, because there were two of them who used it to communicate to each other — and what they were saying made sense.

    By the way, the decision to use bonobos chimps was deliberate. There are reasons to believe that they may be more closely related to us than regular chimps. (For example: regular chimps only engage in sex when females are in heat, but bonobos chimps are even more randy than we humans are.)

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