Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Areby Roger Fouts, Stephen T. Mills
At the heart of this moving and vibrant book is Fouts' magical, 30-year friendship with Washoe--the chimp whom Fouts has taught American Sign Language--whose dialogues with the author have opened a window into chimpanzee consciousness. Movie rights sold to 20th century Fox. of photos.
Thirty years ago, Fouts started teaching chimps American Sign Language (ASL), in hopes of being able to speak directly with them. He was under no illusion that he was teaching chimps the art of communication: They had been communicating in the wild for millennia, with gestures, the dialects of hand movement, facial expressions, and body language. Nonetheless, Fouts was astounded by the speed at which his charges took to ASL and their talents for wordplay and grammar. His research allowed him to put in perspective theories of animal intelligence and language acquisition, from Descartes and Darwin to Skinner and Chomsky, and to formulate his own notions of the remarkable similarity between chimp and human biology and intelligence, of grammar as a complex form of rule-following behavior, and how ASL helped him bridge the sundered audiovisual links experienced by autistics. But clearly the most important thing Fouts feels he learned is that these creatures don't belong in cages, and no matter how much compassion and respect are given the research subjects, morally and ethically, keeping them in captivity is wrong. To drive that point home, he details the barbaric conditions in which lab animals are kept, the excruciating tests they are put through, in powerfully soulful language. And though he can't be counted among the draconians, Fouts recognizes his own culpability in the diminished lives of his charges.
A compelling book. Fouts (aided by wildlife writer Mills) has a way of making us all feel responsibility for the fate of these chimps and for the hellacious acts against them. Jane Goodall has written the book's introduction.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt
A TALE OF TWO CHIMPS
THE FIRST CHIMPANZEE I EVER KNEW was Curious George, the mischievous hero of the classic children's book written by H. A. Rey.
It was the late 1940s and I was a small boy. One night my mother read me the story about "a good little monkey" who is captured in Africa by "the man with the yellow hat." The mysterious man pops Curious George into a sack, puts him on a ship, and takes him to a big city far away.
Curious George feels sad to leave home. But he is soon having fun. He tries hard to be good, but he can't seem to help getting into trouble. "The naughty little monkey" winds up in prison. His friend, the man with the yellow hat, rescues him and puts him in a zoo, where the story ends happily: "What a nice place for George to live!"
I loved this story. It never occurred to me to wonder why Curious George had to leave his home in the jungle, or who the man with the yellow hat was, or why he put George in a zoo. I was only a child.
As a child I also didn't realize that George was not a monkey at all but a chimpanzee. In fact, the book's author had once wanted to call his character Zozo the Chimp. Monkeys, for the most part, are small, narrow-bodied creatures who walk exclusively on all fours and sport tails for balancing. They are our distant evolutionary relatives. Curious George is clearly a chimpanzee: he has no tail, he sometimes runs on two legs, and his face is apelike, with its flat nose and protruding jaw. The chimpanzee is humankind's closest living relative and a member of the great ape family, which also includes gorillas and orangutans. An upright, two-hundred-pound adult chimpanzee resembles our earliest hominid ancestors more than any monkey.
Twenty years later, when I entered graduate school, I met another chimpanzee--a real chimpanzee. Her name was Washoe. She, too, had been abducted from the African jungle--in this case to become part of the American space program. She, too, was an irrepressible bundle of mischief.
Washoe the real chimpanzee was more fantastical than Curious George in one important respect: she reamed how to talk with her hands using American Sign Language. Washoe was the first talking nonhuman, and in the wake of her accomplishment the ancient notion that humans are unique in their capacity for language was shaken forever.
But Washoe's use of language, while remarkable enough in itself, was only the beginning. Those first signs initiated a lifelong conversation between two friends who happened to belong to different species. From the moment I first met Washoe our destinies became as intertwined as two clasped hands. This book chronicles that shared lifetime of joy and hardship, scientific breakthroughs and controversies.
How does one account for the extraordinary connection between humans and chimpanzees? The answer has to do, oddly enough, with the reason children love Curious George. Unlike other storybook animals, Curious George, the chimpanzee, was not anthropomorphized. Chimpanzee behavior really is like human behavior--there is no need to embellish it. Children identify with George's wonder at the world around him, his innocent need to wreak havoc, his thoughtful way of solving problems that creates even bigger problems, his delight in breaking rules and undermining authority figures, and his shame at being caught and punished. In short, children see themselves in Curious George. Little do they know that the Curious George character is no fantasy. The chimpanzee child really does think, feel, and rebel just like the human child.
Most children never discover this remarkable fact. They grow up and leave their storybook alter egos behind. I grew up and met Washoe.
Nothing was further from my own mind when I met Washoe in 1967 than humankind's relationship to other species. My future was mapped out in clear bold lines: I was going to pursue an exciting career in psychology working with children.
But then Washoe began talking. She took me on an amazing journey to a world where animals can think and feel--and can communicate those thoughts and feelings through language. Along the way I met dozens of other chimpanzees, each one as individualistic and expressive as Washoe herself. In the end I learned more about my own species than I ever dreamed possible: the nature of our intelligence, the origins of our language, the extent of our compassion, and the depths of our cruelty.
This is Washoe's story. I tell it to repay a lifelong debt to her and all the other chimpanzees who have touched my heart and opened my mind.
CURIOUS GEORGE WASN'T THE ONLY ANIMAL I knew as a young boy. I grew up on a farm where animals were a very important part of our family's life.
My closest animal companion was our dog, Brownie. Feisty and fiercely loyal, Brownie was a fixture of our household. She needed us and we needed her. In addition to guarding the house, she baby-sat the youngest kids in the fields during the harvest season.
One day I saw Brownie do something that shaped my view of animals forever. She saved my brother's life. It happened during cucumber-picking season when I was four years old. The whole family--my parents, six brothers, and one sister--had been out in the field all day working. Brownie had been watching over me and my nine-year-old brother, Ed, whenever he got tired of picking. By the time the sun was going down our Chevy flatbed was piled high with boxes of cucumbers. It was time to head home for dinner. Ed wanted to ride back on our older brother's bicycle, a big thing that he could barely control. My parents said OK and Ed headed out on the bike, chaperoned by Brownie. Twenty minutes later, the rest of us clambered onto the truck and left the field with my twenty-year-old brother, Bob, driving.
It was the dry season, six months or so since the last rain, and the dirt road was blanketed with four or five inches of chalky dust. As the truck drove along the well-worn tire ruts in the road, it kicked up a huge cloud of dust that covered us on all sides, making it impossible to see more than two feet ahead or behind. After going along for a while, we suddenly heard Brownie barking very loudly and very persistently. We looked down and we could just make her out next to the front fender. She was sniping at the right front tire. This was very strange behavior. Brownie had come to the fields hundreds of times and had never once barked at the truck. But now she was practically attacking it. My brother Bob thought this was odd but didn't give Brownie much thought as he plowed ahead even as her barking became more frenzied. Then, without further warning, Brownie dove in front of the truck's front tire. I heard her shriek, and I felt a thump as we drove over her body. Bob hit the brakes, and we all got out. Brownie was dead. And right there in front of the truck, not ten feet away, was Ed, stuck on his bike in the deep tire rut, unable to escape. Another two seconds and we would have run him down.
Brownie's death was devastating to all of us. I had seen animals die before, but this one was my nearest and dearest friend. My parents tried to explain that Brownie had only done what either of them would have done for us. No one doubted for a second that Brownie had sacrificed her own life to save my brother's. She saw a dangerous situation unfolding, and she did what she had to do to protect the boy she had been baby-sitting for so many years. Had she not acted, the course of our family's life would have been very different.
My mother had a deep respect for all God's creatures, and she was full of stories about animal intelligence that we never tired of hearing, like the one about her childhood horse who could untie knots. My mother grew up at the turn of the century in what seemed to us the romantic Wild West. She was well acquainted, as she loved to remind us, with horses, guns, and rattlesnakes.
My parents were leasing a small vineyard in California in the early 1940s. By the time I came along, in 1943--the last of eight children spanning eighteen years--they were ready to buy their own modest spread. I was three years old when our large family, animals included, moved onto forty acres outside Florin, a small town south of Sacramento.
Growing up on a farm I quickly learned that animals, like people, are best understood as individuals, no two of whom are the same. I knew a variety of pigs, a variety of cows, and a variety of horses. We always referred to a specific animal by name, as in "Bessie is a real sweetheart" or "Old One Horn's busting my chops." When my mother said, "He's an ornery critter" she might have been complaining about a horse, a cow, or a person. It was understood that all three species are prone to bouts of orneriness.
By the time I could walk, I had to know which cow was friendly and which one spiteful. If I didn't know that much I could easily walk behind the wrong one and get clobbered. By the time I was five years old, I knew exactly where each cow liked her milk pail placed; if I got it wrong then we didn't get any milk. For us, the notion that animals are dumb beasts without distinctive personalities was something city people thought and something a farm family could not afford to indulge. If you didn't deal with an animal's personality, then it would deal with you.
Earning a living for ten people on forty acres was a big job. My parents were inseparable helpmates, rarely ten feet apart in the fields or the kitchen. All eight children were relied upon for labor, and everyone depended on the animals to be our working partners. I was taught to make allowances for them the same as I would for my brothers or sister. They were members of our family, and their personalities, illnesses, and contributions were discussed in great detail. Of course, I'd occasionally find one of our pigs, ducks, or cows on my dinner plate. In those moments I understood the full extent of our family's reliance on animals. When we gave thanks for our dinner, I knew exactly to whom I was indebted.
When I was twelve years old, and Ed and I were the only kids left in the house, our family's life changed radically. My parents decided to give up farming and move to Los Angeles so that my mother could tend to her ailing father. One morning I found myself saying good-bye to the farm, the animals, the wood-frame three-room schoolhouse, and the winding Mokelumne River, where I loved to play. The next morning I woke up in my grandfather's house in Compton, a racially mixed neighborhood of urban Los Angeles. I showed up for my first day at Roosevelt Junior High in my very best brown corduroys, neatly ironed shirt, and farm boy haircut--shorn on the sides and slicked down on top. I looked like someone who just fell off a turnip truck. It was 1955, and all the other eighth graders looked like James Dean. They wore baggy Levi's with the belt loops cut off and the waist pulled down on the hips, pant cuffs rolled up, and white T-shirts with cigarettes tucked into the sleeves.
Around this time I began dreaming of becoming a psychologist. This aspiration emerged naturally from an important event in our family that had occurred two years earlier, when I was in the sixth grade. One of my brothers had a nervous breakdown. He recovered only through the intervention of a school counselor. I was deeply impressed by this "healer of the mind," and I soon developed a kind of Florence Nightingale syndrome--I wanted to help cure others.
To become a psychologist I would have to go to college, and that was an unlikely path in a family full of farmers and plumbers. Some of my brothers did start college. They just never seemed to finish. Donald went to Berkeley for a year on scholarship, then came back to the farm, married his high school sweetheart, and became a successful plumber. Ed did a couple of years of college, then went into plumbing. Raymond did two years of college and then ran boilers in a heating plant. Arthur fought in World War II, came home, and bought a small vineyard. Jack became an electrician. Bob was deputy sheriff of Stockton. My only sister, Florence, became a painter.
But there was one member of my family who was determined to finish her education: my mother. When she was fifty-two years old my mother decided to go to high school. Ever since my brother's miraculous recovery a few years earlier she, too, had wanted to become a psychologist. Her own enthusiasm for the healing profession had a profound effect on me. As I worked my way through Compton Junior High, my mother focused her considerable energy on getting the high school and college education she had missed out on. Day after day I would come home from school to find her sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework. She couldn't seem to get enough book learning. She reveled in every minute of every course she took, and after receiving her high school equivalency, she enrolled at Compton Junior College and then Long Beach State, blazing a trail that I would follow.
In September 1960 I enrolled at Compton. Although I wanted to study human psychology I was required to take animal psychology courses as well. One of the first things I was taught was that animals are mindless creatures whose rigid behavior, unlike that of humans, is controlled by instinct. My professors spoke reverentially about "scientific objectivity," and clearly looked down upon uneducated people who still believed in the old superstition that animals had humanlike consciousness. I knew immediately that I had been one of those ignorant fools. I felt ashamed of my childhood view of animals, and I worked doubly hard to be objective and worthy of wearing a white lab coat as I studied the behavior of pigeons and rats. Objective science was personified by the promise of the new American space program, and I was glued to the television as chimpanzees were launched into outer space and their bodily responses analyzed by teams of NASA biologists and engineers.
It wasn't until I attended Long Beach State College and took courses in child psychology with a professor named Joe White that I knew I wanted to work with kids. Joe was more than a great teacher. He became a major influence in my life. A short and dynamic black man, Joe had an unpretentious, street-smart style of working with children, adults, and families. He took me under his wing and became my clinical supervisor. Many of his students knew all the theories about children, Joe said, but he thought I had that rare talent for actually working with kids. Under his mentorship I discovered that I empathized easily with kids who were uncommunicative or in pain. I knew that there was more money to be made treating adult neurotics, but I was drawn to these wounded children who were too young to have chosen their abusive families or depressing circumstances. They deserved an ally, I thought.
But as committed as I was to child psychology, there were still moments when I considered following in my brothers' footsteps. My brother Donald had a very successful plumbing business by the early 1960s. During my first year at Long Beach State my girlfriend took one look at Donald's suburban lifestyle and began urging me to forget about college and get into business with my brother instead. We'd have a nice house with a yard, a car, kids. It was very tempting.
Then I met Debbi Harris. From the first time I saw her on campus, I thought she was the most exotic girl at Long Beach State. Those were the days of bouffant hairdos and heavy makeup. Debbi pulled her dark hair back in a tight ponytail, and her piercing blue eyes and natural beauty were untouched by makeup. She seemed lit up from within by vitality and self-confidence. She was the anti-Barbie in the midst of a thousand Barbie dolls. She made no attempt to mask the person inside.
Debbi was from San Francisco, only four hundred miles away but as distant culturally from Los Angeles--the land of Disneyland, American Graffiti, and the Beach Boys--as one could get. She was very liberal politically and knowledgeable about the civil rights movement. I was used to talking to my girlfriends about cars, clothes, and sports--not about ethical dilemmas and righting the wrongs of society. I'd never met anyone who seemed genuinely concerned about the world's underdogs. But best of all, Debbi loved children. She had worked with Down's syndrome kids one summer in high school and it changed her life. She knew she wanted to work with special kids. And she encouraged me to stick to my own dream.
Nine months after we met, in August 1964, Debbi and I got married. She was determined that marriage not get in the way of her career path. We both resumed to Long Beach State to finish college in the understanding that we'd take turns going to graduate school in child psychology.
But in the summer of 1966, just as Debbi completed her bachelor's degree and I was starting my master's, we learned that she was pregnant. The happy but surprising news--the babies were supposed to come after graduate school--delayed Debbi's career plans and focused my mind in a hurry. I began studying harder to improve my grade point average, and I applied to doctoral programs in clinical psychology. The competition was extremely fierce. Some schools had as many as four hundred applicants for a single opening. My grades were good but not of the 4.0 variety that many applicants would be offering. Still, I didn't let that obvious shortcoming stop me. I applied to nine of the nation's top clinical schools.
Joe White smelled trouble ahead. "Roger," he suggested, "why don't you apply to a second-tier school in experimental psychology."
Experimental psychology--or rat psych, as it is affectionately known--studies animals in cages. Its practitioners measure repetitive behavior like lever pressing in rats and pecking in pigeons as if they were molecules in a test tube. Nothing could be further from clinical psychology--the treatment of human problems with the "talking cure" of Sigmund Freud or other therapies based on the emotional life. Still, Joe felt that I could get an excellent background in the rigorous scientific method of animal psychology and then, after getting my Ph.D., pursue postdoctoral work with kids. He suggested that I add the University of Nevada at Reno to my list of schools and I did. Six months later, in March 1967, while the nation's more famous schools were busy rejecting me, the University of Nevada admitted me to their graduate program in experimental psychology. The acceptance arrived one day after our first child, Joshua, was born.
But I still had one major problem. I couldn't afford the university's high out-of-state tuition fees. I immediately wrote a letter requesting a graduate assistantship--any job that would allow the school to waive the out-of-state tuition.
As the weeks and months went by without any response, I began to consider the real possibility that I might not go to graduate school at all. I would never receive my Ph.D. or get to work with kids. I had already lined up a summer job as a shipping clerk in an aluminum foundry. Come the fall, I would go into my brother's business. After all the studying and the planning, after coming so far, it turned out I would be a plumber after all.
Just when I was about to give up, the phone rang one afternoon in June. It was Dr. Paul Secord, the chairman of Reno's psychology department.
"Roger, we have a half-time assistantship available," he said. "Would you be interested?"
"Of course," I answered. "What's the job?" I was already picturing myself running white rats through some very challenging mazes.
"Teaching a chimpanzee to talk," he said, matter-of-factly.
"Teaching a chimpanzee to talk," he repeated, as if saying it a second time might clear up my confusion. At first I thought he was pulling my leg. Maybe this was the "talking chimpanzee" joke they played on all first-year graduate students.
But he went on to tell me about two laboratory scientists on the Reno faculty--a husband-and-wife team named Allen and Beatrix Gardner--who were raising an infant chimpanzee in their home. Her name was Washoe. The Gardners planned to teach Washoe to talk with her hands using American Sign Language, and they needed an assistant.
"Is Washoe signing yet?" I asked Dr. Secord.
"Oh, yes," he replied nonchalantly. "They've been at it for a year and Washoe already has a small vocabulary of signs."
Dr. Secord didn't seem to be as amazed as I was at Washoe's linguistic abilities. He was a social psychologist and so he was more impressed that Washoe was imitating her foster parents, the Gardners, by bathing her dolls in the dishpan where she received her own baths. Only humans could imitate such behavior--or so social psychologists thought.
The more I heard about Washoe the more intrigued I became. Playing with dolls didn't sound anything like running rats through mazes. It was more like working with a child. What better way to prepare myself for a career with uncommunicative kids than by learning to communicate with a mute chimpanzee!
"I'll take the job," I announced to Dr. Secord.
"I can't give it to you," he replied. "You'll have to pass an interview with Allen Gardner."
Allen Gardner was a tough-minded exponent of experimental psychology, known for his strict laboratory method and mathematical precision. I knew that he would tend to see a clinician like me as a soft-minded Freudian who talked for a living and was unable to separate feelings from facts. Gardner was surely looking for someone more laboratory oriented than me. The interview was a long shot, but I was out of other options.
On a hot Sunday in August, Debbi, Joshua, and my parents dropped me off in Reno for my interview and wished me luck. As Dr. Gardner and I strolled across the campus, which ironically was where the Ronald Reagan chimp movie, Bedtime for Bonzo, was filmed, he explained the two main parts of the job. First, to help raise Washoe by taking care of her day-to-day feeding, clothing, and play. Second, to expose her to American Sign Language. I was already taking care of one primate infant, my son, so thought I could handle that, and as for learning sign language, it would be a challenge, but I had no doubt that I could master it given enough time.
But the focus of the interview soon shifted to me, and my worst fears were confirmed. Gardner was skeptical about my credentials for his research project. It wasn't my academic preparation that gave him pause--I had taken several courses in animal psychology and statistics--but my desire to do clinical work with children. To him, this was a fatal flaw in my character. Gardner had no use for someone who was likely to waste time on nebulous concepts that couldn't be proved in a laboratory.
The interview was going badly. In desperation, I tried to win him over by telling him how much I was looking forward to taking courses with two well-known philosophers of science during the coming school year.
"Science doesn't need philosophy," he shot back. "If you are influenced by them it will show that you weren't worth anything to begin with."
Our walk was now over and so was the interview. I had blown it. I felt sick to my stomach knowing that my career in psychology had reached an end. I considered begging him, but I knew it would do no good. As we said good-bye, Gardner asked if I wanted to walk over to the university nursery school and see Washoe. She played there every Sunday on the jungle gym and swings when there were no children around. I knew this was the loser's consolation prize, but I wasn't too proud to accept it.
As we approached the fenced-in nursery school, I saw two adults playing with a child in the shade of a tree. At least I thought it was a child. When the child saw us coming she leapt up and began hooting. Then she began sprinting in our direction--on all fours. We were only a few yards from the four-foot-high fence now. Washoe continued to speed toward us and, without breaking stride, vaulted over the fence and sprang from the top rail. What happened next amazes me to this day. Washoe did not jump onto Allen Gardner as I had expected. She leapt into my arms. Before I knew what was happening, this baby chimpanzee had wrapped her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist. She was giving me a giant hug. Somewhat sheepishly, I found myself hugging her back. With my dreams in ruins, I needed that hug more than anything in the world.
Then the small diapered girl fumed around in my arms and reached out for Allen Gardner. She climbed into his arms and gave him a hug, too. I was stunned to see Gardner smiling warmly at me over Washoe's shoulder. Washoe liked me, and he knew it.
I don't know why Washoe hugged me that day. In years to come I would discover that she had an uncanny knack for seeking out and comforting those who were sad or hurt, but I never again saw her jump into a stranger's arms. When Allen Gardner called me a few days later to tell me the research assistantship was mine, I knew exactly who had done the selecting. I may not have been Gardner's ideal graduate student, but as far as Washoe was concerned I would make a pretty good playmate. Thanks to a two-year-old chimpanzee I was going to be a psychologist, not a plumber.
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This book is breath taking. Not only does Fouts include strong facts to back up his research, he also touches your heart with stories of personal encounters with chimps. Anyone and everyone should read this book. I work at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, and see Washoe everyday, and this book only begins to describe her journey.
great storyline and window of truth upon the primate studies conducted in the world today. shows the sides of our primate ancestors that are mostly hidden from public view. includes a photograph section as well. definitely worth the read.