Darwin-L Message Log 6:6 (February 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<6:6>From schoenem@QAL.Berkeley.Edu  Tue Feb  1 16:46:54 1994

Date: Tue, 1 Feb 1994 13:41:03 -0800 (PST)
From: Tom Schoenemann <schoenem@QAL.Berkeley.Edu>
Subject: Re: Who, what, where, when, etc.
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Regarding the question of whether chimps given linguistic training have
ever been known to use interrogatives, I recently attended a lecture by
Allen and Beatrix Gardner in which this question was raised.  For those
who are not familiar with their work, the Gardners attempted to teach
American Sign Language to a number of chimps (Washoe being the most
famous).  They reported that their chimps regularly used the signs "what"
and "who" in sentences in which they (the chimps) clearly wanted a
response from their handlers.  Beatrix Gardner specifically stated that
their chimps would often sign THAT WHAT?, point to a novel object, and
look at the handler while waiting for a response.  After the handler
formed the sign for the particular object, the chimp would appear
satisfied (i.e., would stop signing THAT WHAT? and stop looking at the
handler).  The chimps apparently would go through periods in which they
would repeat this process many times (to many different objects) during
a single study session.

In their 1989 review article of their work (Gardner, R. A. and B. T.
Gardner. "Early signs of language in cross-fostered chimpanzees." HUMAN
EVOLUTION V.4(5):337-365) they include the signs "what" and "who" in their
table of signs reliably used by 4 of their chimps (Washoe, Moja, Tatu, and
Dar).  The entry for "what" includes the following specific example where
it was used by Moja:

(during tickle play with teddy bear)
Susan (human handler): WANT TICKLE MORE?
Moja: THAT WHAT? (of teddy bear)
Susan: BABY
Moja: BABY

The entry for "who" includes the following example from Tatu:

(of Naomi's photo on driver's license)

The learning environment that they used with the chimps closely resembled
how human children are treated (in stark contrast to Terrace's relatively
sterile operant conditioning methods) and they achieved much better
results.  It seems to be the case that the highest level of learning in
chimps occurs in informal, social settings.  This is not to say that their
results are anecdotal.  The Gardners (and more recently Savage-Rumbaugh's
work with Kanzi) used rigorous double-blind methodologies for testing the
extent of their vocabularies.  Given that humans and chimps last shared a
common ancestor ~5 million years ago, whereas chimps and rats last shared
a common ancestor ~70 million years ago, I do not find it suprising that
chimps learn better in a more human environment!  But this is another
question all together.

Tom Schoenemann
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley

Your Amazon purchases help support this website. Thank you!

© RJO 1995–2022