Washoe the Chimp gives us more to think about as Humans

Since I’ve stumbled across so many examples now of really damn intelligent animals, it’s starting to become an actual interest of mine. I’m partway through Temple Grandin’s book “Animals Make Us Human”, and when I finish it, I do plan to do somewhat of a review here. Animals really are amazing, and many people do not give them enough credit. But it seems, if you took away human’s opposable thumbs and ability to communicate with verbal language, we would not be much further ahead than some of the creatures we share this planet with.

Washoe the Chimp is a pretty interesting story. She was confirmed as having learned over 300 words in American Sign Language (which I am going to have my first lesson in this afternoon, actually), and demonstrated more than one example of self-awareness that got researchers talking.

So, originally I was made aware of Washoe through this link, which tells a story with some pictures. Before I posted about it though, I wanted to confirm what was being said. So, off to Wikipedia I went, and was not disappointed.

Washoe  was a female common chimpanzee who was the first non-human to learn to communicate using American Sign Language—to a limited degree—as part of a research experiment on animal language acquisition.

Washoe learned approximately 350 words of ASL. She also taught her adopted son Loulis some American Sign Language. Using similar teaching methods, several other chimpanzees were later taught 150 or more signs, which they were able to combine to form complex messages.

Washoe was raised in an environment as close as possible to that of a human child, in an attempt to satisfy her psychological need for companionship.[13][14][15]

While with Washoe, the Gardners and Fouts were careful to communicate only in ASL with Washoe, rather than using vocal communication, on the assumption that this would create a less confusing learning environment for Washoe. This technique is commonly used when teaching human children how to sign.[16]

After the first couple of years of the language project, the Gardners and Roger Fouts discovered that Washoe could pick up ASL gestures without direct instruction, but instead by observing humans around her who were signing amongst themselves. For example, the scientists signed “Toothbrush” to each other while they brushed their teeth near her. At the time of observation, Washoe showed no signs of having learned the sign, but on a later occasion she reacted to the sight of a toothbrush by spontaneously producing the correct sign, thereby showing that she had in fact previously learned the ASL sign. Moreover, the Gardners began to realize that rewarding particular signs with food and tickles was actually interfering with the intended result of conversational sign language [emphasis added – and damn fascinating!]. They changed their strategy so that food and meal times were never juxtaposed with instruction times. In addition, they stopped the tickle rewards during instruction because these generally resulted in laughing breakdowns. Instead, they set up a conversational environment that evoked communication, without the use of rewards for specific actions.

Self-awareness and emotion

One of Washoe’s caretakers was pregnant and missed work for many weeks after she miscarried. Roger Fouts recounts the following situation:

“People who should be there for her and aren’t are often given the cold shoulder–her way of informing them that she’s miffed at them. Washoe greeted Kat [the caretaker] in just this way when she finally returned to work with the chimps. Kat made her apologies to Washoe, then decided to tell her the truth, signing “MY BABY DIED.” Washoe stared at her, then looked down. She finally peered into Kat’s eyes again and carefully signed “CRY”, touching her cheek and drawing her finger down the path a tear would make on a human (Chimpanzees don’t shed tears). Kat later remarked that one sign told her more about Washoe and her mental capabilities than all her longer, grammatically perfect sentences.”

Washoe herself lost two children; one baby died shortly after birth of a heart defect, the other baby, Sequoyah, died of a staph infection at two months of age.

When Washoe was shown an image of herself in the mirror, and asked what she was seeing, she replied: “Me, Washoe.” Primate expert Jane Goodall, who has studied and lived with chimpanzees for decades, believes that this might indicate some level of self awareness. Washoe appeared to experience an identity crisis when she was first introduced to other chimpanzees, seeming shocked to learn that she was not human [emphasis added, and again, blows my mind]. She gradually came to enjoy associating with other chimps.

Washoe also enjoyed playing pretend with her dolls, which she would bathe and talk to and would act out imaginary scenarios.

When new students came to work with Washoe, she would slow down her rate of signing for novice speakers of sign language, which had a humbling effect on many of them.

This whole thing just really blows my mind. This chimpanzee, who was essentially raised like a human child, is acting very human-like, showing compassion, but also showing self-respect in giving the cold shoulder to people who haven’t respected her. I know some actual human beings who don’t even behave this intelligently.

In case you are thinking “wait, wasn’t the primate they taught sign language named Koko?” That was actually a different case, Koko was a Gorilla who learned over 1,000 signs. I’m choosing to focus on Washoe here.

I’ll say it again – simply fascinating.

Care to share your thoughts?