Thursday, March 8, 2012

Primate Power and Potential

Classical biology was basically a bunch of British guys sailing around the world and sticking pins through any moving thing they found. Animal "specimens" from lowly insects to birds and primates were all subject to the same, often brutal treatment. Concepts like "animal welfare" weren't supported with substantial legislation until the late 20th century. It was Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees in the 1960s that taught humanity it wasn't a lone island of intelligence in a sea of soulless animal automatons. Since then we’ve been surprised, amazed, and even surpassed by some of our ingenious animal cousins. 

Meet Kanzi the bonobo.   


The Great Ape Trust has deemed him “the world’s undisputed ape-language superstar.”  He understands over 600 words, many of which he communicates to researchers via a large keyboard.  The keys correspond to various nouns, verbs and adjectives, which the machine then speaks in English, but no key’s symbol is related to the thing it represents.  Kanzi is the first ape to have learned human language simply by observing people, namely his adoptive mother, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who has been his primary teacher and researcher.  He is able not only to identify items and answer simple questions, but to synthesize his own words and phrases from the ones on his keyboard.  To identify pizza, he said, “bread, cheese, tomato,” and when his home-state of Iowa was flooded during a storm he said, “big water.”  Kanzi has been observed collecting and breaking wood for a fire, lighting the fire with matches, and roasting marshmallows.  He’s also an accomplished craftsman.  He learned to make stone knives which are sharp enough to cut leather. 

Koko the gorilla is another language master - in this case American Sign Language.  Although gorillas are thought to be of lesser intelligence than bonobos and chimpanzees, Koko understands 1000 signs and 2000 English words (which would seem to give her the “ape-language superstar” throne over Kanzi, but there it is).  On an IQ test, which I’ve been unable to find but which was supposedly a human-level test, Koko scored between 70 and 95.  An average human scores 100. 

Now for the one that’s going to put you to shame.  Before you watch the video, ask yourself a few things: Are you smarter than a five-year-old human (Sorry if you are a five-year-old human.  Also, shouldn’t you be coloring?)?  Are you smarter than an adult chimp?  Okay, well this is a five-year-old chimp. 

He’s five.  And a chimp.  What have you done today?  I realize this is not a measure of “intelligence” so much as transmission and processing speed, but still, this is a cognitive function at which a chimp kindergartener positively dominates the human race! 

There’s a bit of a debate over the legitimacy of some language interpretations made by ape researchers.  Some scientists and even linguists adamantly deny the possibility of apes even approximating human speech complexity.  Whether they can or not, how can we deny that there’s something very special going on here – something that clearly lifts these animals out of the realm of “Let’s throw these things in a zoo for our entertainment.” and onto a level close or equal to our own?   


  1. It took me five minutes to get past the first photo caption, I was laughing so hard.

  2. ^I agree with Dana! He could be offended because someone told him to lay off the pizza... but then he'd probably be able to order his own