Thursday, October 18, 2012

On "Next of Kin" by Roger Fouts with Stephen Tukel Mills ****

Fouts is a believer. What I mean is that he is a heavy believer in chimpanzee speech--and in a sense, in the personhood of chimpanzees. I've read work by those who have heavy doubts about chimpanzee language also. But, with his enthusiasm and determination, as on evidence here, Fouts is probably more convincing.

Still, I'd prefer the work of someone a bit more skeptical, not a neighsayer but not a yeasayer either. I don't know sign language, so perhaps my watching of films of apes doing such isn't fully informed, but I remain somewhat skeptical. I'm not saying I don't think primates sign or communicate; I'm remain a bit skeptical about what they sign and communicate for and about. After all, they only master often thirty to two hundred signs. They communicate, as all animals do. But discourse isn't exactly on the human level that Fouts often seems to almost put it on in this book.

Fouts complains of scientists and linguists whose preconceived notions render the results they want. They won't accept Fouts's findings no matter what because those findings don't jibe with what they believe, with what they want to find. I understand Fouts's frustration. Breaking the Maya Code is a great example of how such closed-mindedness can harm scholarly endeavors--and it does so regularly. But Fouts also, in becoming so close to the subject of his research, is probably also blinded a bit by his own will. We all are. This is what I mean about having a healthy bit of skepticism.

That said, I truly enjoyed the work, especially as the writer explored aspects of animal language and research I hadn't been aware of before. There's a long section of the space chimps, the primates sent into orbit to test out American ingenuity in the days before human astronauts. I'd never read about them at length. Most interesting: Fouts discusses how the primate brain is more complex than we imagined. One would imagine rote conditioning, and yet one chimp, sent into space, having been taught to do a certain procedure a certain way lest he be electrically zapped, faced a situation that required him to go against directions and previous training, and to actually be zapped while doing so, and he did it, saving the spacecraft. That's probably one of the most amazing stories of animal thought I've ever heard.

Another part I really enjoyed was reading about Fouts's work with autistic children. That's what his original intent in becoming a psychological scholar was: to work with disabled children. Somehow, he got sidetracked and ended up taking care of chimps. But the research in the field hasn't been all for mere curiosity. Language research has helped psychologists get autistic children to talk. It showed that children who find sound too intense can sometimes manage to learn to communicate via another sense, like signs; in turn, this has freed up their linguistic brain, one might say, and eventually led them to talk with their mouths as well.

But as one would expect, the main focus here is the chimps, especially Washoe, the one Fouts has worked with the longest. We learn a lot of Washoe's biography as well as the biographies of other chimps Fouts worked with extensively. A lot of the characters are familiar--the same ones who show up in other books about talking primates.

There's also a lot of active pushing for the end to using chimps for research (yes, coming from this researcher), a lot of pushing for the "human rights" of chimps. Fouts at some point concedes that this is the beginning of a slope. Why stop at chimps? Why not include dogs or rats? But he thinks these are questions and concerns worth addressing, since, as he notes, some claimed certain races and ethnicities were biologically inferior a century ago. Call me biased toward humans, but I do think there's a significant difference. That said, Fouts's call for a kinder treatment of research subjects certainly bears listening to and acting upon.

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