What if YOUR Chimp Could Talk to You?

By Emmett Bassen-Alexander

Human history has always been fraught with miscommunication. People have fought wars because they couldn’t understand each other. There was even a story in the bible about this one guy, Jim, who said “Hey Joe, I don’t think you’re fat” to his friend named Joe, but Joe misheard and thought he said “Hey Joe, I think you are a stupid stink rat,” so he butchered all of Jim’s goats in retaliation. There was also some big tower, but that was only marginally related to the topic at hand. And while the bible might not always be the most reliable of sources, the point is that humans, it seems, will never be able to communicate with each other effectively. But what if we tried to talk to monkeys?

Monkey history has also been fraught with miscommunication, but that mostly boils down to their inability to speak any sort of traditional language. So while we might be able to try to teach them sign language, there are some significant societal differences that we have to overcome. Chimps have a long and decorated history of waging war on each other and eating human children (yes, that is real). They are also known to be really selfish. Most of them are great biters, and they are incredibly muscular. All of this combines to tell me that no, maybe we shouldn’t try to teach chimps to be humans.

And yet, scientists tried it anyway.

The first major “hold on guys what if chimps could talk” experiment occurred in 1967, with a chimp named Washoe. Washoe was born in 1965 and raised in the US as a deaf human child by her caretakers, along with some other chimps in the same experiment. She lived a very normal life as a human, doing chores and going on car rides. After some time, she was able to learn sign language, picking up a lot of words and communicating grammatically complex sentences. Her experiment was revolutionary for linguists and zoologists alike, because previous experiments trying to get chimps to speak real words were all failures. The problem was in the fact that their bodies are not anatomically able to produce human language sounds, so they seem a lot less smart than they really are. However, Washoe’s ability to speak sign language comprehensively indicated that maybe those other chimps got a raw deal. Where those chimps were restrained by the limits of modern chimp anatomy, Washoe could communicate to other chimps words they didn’t know by giving them compounds of other signs, and identify things she didn’t know with words she did. In one instance, a chimp learned from her what a thermos was and called it a “METAL-CUP-DRINK.” In another, she called a swan a “WATER-BIRD” While controversial if those mean anything major about her overall understanding, it still demonstrated a level of mastery that no one thought was possible. While Washoe was a very smart chimp by chimp standards, those standards are not very high in terms of actual intelligence. She was around the level of a 2-3 year old, and couldn’t communicate at a high level like that of a human. Washoe was probably the best example of a chimp that could learn to talk, but there were others with similar experiences.

The next major chimp talking experiment was with a chimp known as “Nim Chimpsky,” named for the linguist Noam Chomsky, who claimed that only humans could utilize language. A bit of a mockery, but at least Noam got to have a famous chimp named after him. Nim was much more of a problem child than Washoe, but that was largely to do with his problematic upbringing. He was also raised as a human, by a human family, except at age one he became a vicious biter. That’s right. Not a lover, a biter. Nim was so bite happy that he had to be taken to another caretaker, then another, and soon the experiment was over due to one of Nim’s trademarked “chimp attacks.” He was sent to live with other chimps, and he died at age 27 in captivity. Nim, during his time at the University of Oklahoma, was good friends with many people. He was, sources say, a very nice chimp, but that was when he wasn’t attacking anyone. One man who made friends with him, Bob Ingersoll, said “It was easy to hang out with him.” Bob even smoked some marijuana with Nim during his time with him, and Nim liked it so much he asked for more later. However, for all of his good graces, Nim was mentally destroyed from all of his time in cages and laboratories that all he really needed at the end of his scientific career was a nice chimp home to live in, along with some other chimps to be with. Nim’s experience really goes to show that if you subject anyone with experiments and, being caged as a child you will be messed up forever. So while Nim was a pretty chill dude for all accounts, he never really learned anything substantial. The runners of the experiment determined that he was mostly imitating random symbols to hopefully get rewards, which doesn’t actually prove anything about his ability to communicate. So if Washoe was an 8 on the “chimp comprehension” scale, Nim was somewhere within the 2-3 range. All the experiment really proved was that A. Chimps are not to be trusted, especially if they have childhood trauma, and B. that they are just barely able to learn human language, and they are not even designed for it to begin with.

In the end, the various chimp experiments mostly turned out to be a neat use of resources with little conclusive evidence on whether or not chimps can really understand and utilize ASL. They had a good result on one, but the other yielded actively detrimental evidence that could be used to discredit the first experiment. However, the idea they were able to understand language is not so far fetched given some of the things both Washoe and Nim said. Wouldn’t you think that Washoe having an identity crisis upon realizing that she wasn’t human isn’t human enough to speak to us? Whatever you may think, the evidence remains inconclusive. Can they understand us? Or were we duped once again by those devious masterminds?