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APrimate Journey Review of Animal Bodies Human Minds Ape Dolphin and Parrot Language Skills by W.A. Hillix and Duane Rumbaugh. New York Kluwer AcademicPlenum Publishers 2004 ii+310 pp 12 figs. $49

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American Journal of Primatology 68:513–516 (2006)
A Primate Journey: Review of Animal Bodies, Human
Minds: Ape, Dolphin, and Parrot Language Skills by W.A.
Hillix and Duane Rumbaugh. New York, Kluwer Academic/
Plenum Publishers, 2004, ii1310 pp, 12 figs., $49.95.
A historian studying primate and animal behavior in, say, 2050, may find the
attempts in our times to establish communication with nonhuman animals to be
a prominent feature of our science. The historian may find the 40 or so years
of emphasis on animal–human language to be instructive not only because of the
dramatic and courageous achievements of workers we know as contemporaries,
but because the researchers’ ongoing disagreements are instructive as to how
science, when it evaluates itself properly, also improves and mends its claims.
Primatologists of whatever persuasion must attend to these studies if for no other
reason than the moral tale they tell.
The study of primate and animal–human communication has now reached
a time, at least for the nonhuman primates, when the daring first-generation of
studies are matters of record. An overlapping but new generation of researchers
has chosen to examine the functional and categorical properties of the primate
mind along with the mathematical ability constructions of nonhuman primates,
thereby bypassing the complexities of asking whether primates can communicate
through nonvocal languages (such as American sign language), designated
symbols, or artificial languages (such as Yerkish).
It is therefore an apt time to attempt what Hillix and Rumbaugh propose
when they write (p. vi) ‘‘In this book we will survey what was known or believed
about animal language throughout history and prehistory, and summarize
current knowledge and the controversy that swirls around it. We will identify,
and try to settle, most of the problems in interpreting the animal behaviors that
have been observed in studies of animal language ability.’’ This bold goal
commands our respect, for we know that the authors’ reach, even if it falls short,
will instruct us.
The first section provides an updated chronology of attempts to communicate
with animals, including those made by the Kelloggs and Hayses to teach human
language to home-reared chimpanzees. The middle chapters review similar work
with Washoe, Koko, Sarah, Lana, and Chantek (an orang-utan), and, to complete
the description of the great apes’ linguistic abilities, contain a most informative
and welcome chapter by Tetsuro Matsuzawa describing the history of his elegant
DOI 10.1002/ajp.20247
Published online in Wiley InterScience (
r 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
514 / Candland
work with the chimpanzee Ai (although demonstration of linguistic competence
has not been Matsuzawa’s aim).
At times we are allowed to accompany one (or both?) of the authors when
they visit the animals, although it is not always clear to me which of the authors
appears in the first person. The situation is seemingly clarified in the concluding
chapters, where it is evident from the context that it is senior author Hillix who
describes his visits with several dolphins and Alex, a parrot. In the final two
chapters the authors attempt to reach their goal by offering an evaluation of ape
language research and where we are going with such research. In thumbnail
sketches of people and animals, the authors offer their judgments on the
personalities of some of the contemporary people mentioned.
The level of the reporting, descriptions, and analyses is what literary folk
often call ‘‘accessible.’’ There are shifts between the descriptions offered by what
I take to be one author and the somewhat deeper paragraphs of explanation that
seem to be the additions and emendations of a second author. The reader might
find these sometimes abrupt shifts in tone to be either annoying or helpful, or, in
different places, perhaps both. One may find the comments on folks’ personalities
fascinating, or merely another characteristic of our times to concentrate on the
personality of the researcher rather than the method and data. The personalities
of researchers of animal–human communication are surely an important part of
the story that will be told, but whose viewpoint is the right one?
One aspect of the truly courageous attempts to teach human language to
animals and thereby learn about their inner mental states is that the question
being asked changes, often with such subtlety that we lose track of the subject.
The original question–can a great ape learn American sign language? (as
demonstrated by its ability to reliably converse)–morphs into the questions of
whether a great ape can use syntax and grammar, or something more than purely
referential language; whether the great ape learns language by enculturation
with human speakers (a procedure that, even though it allows for infinite
uncontrolled variables, may be requisite for the acquisition of communication
skills); and whether our knowledge about how a human child develops linguistic
skills is the appropriate model for comparison.
Much of the debate centers around what we mean by ‘‘language,’’ for as soon
as we operationally define this term, we can ask whether primates and other
animals might be able to acquire a human ‘‘language.’’ However, workers in the
field of animal–human language have not been eager to offer careful definitions
of the terms they use. The history of the field, both we and our imagined historian
note, is replete with the undefined use of ‘‘speech,’’ ‘‘communicate,’’ and
‘‘meaning.’’ Sometimes one wonders not whether apes use language properly, but
whether human researchers do. The issue, which is too often tacit, is this: Do we
think of ‘‘language’’ as a tool to open the animal mind to us? Or are we interested
in demonstrating that an animal learns human language (always English) the
same way as human beings?
For some workers the expression of words that are meaningful to human
beings seems little more than a useful operant that allows the human a peek into
the structure of the animal mind. I judge Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex,
Am. J. Primatol. DOI 10.1002/ajp
Media Review / 515
a parrot, and Tetsuro Matsuzawa’s work with Ai, a chimpanzee, to be of this
nature. There is also a growing literature, begun by Herbert Terrace (whose work
with Nim, a chimpanzee, rates far too little attention in this book) on the
nonhuman’s concepts of the quality of number. Both Alex and Ai rate chapters in
this book, but the relation to ‘‘language,’’ as Hillix and Rumbaugh understand it,
is not clarified for the reader. I also judge the Premacks’ work with Sarah as a
wish to bypass linguistic skills in order to reach the functional and structural
aspects of the mind of the chimpanzee. Mentioned only in passing is the
longstanding work of Sally Boysen with chimpanzees, and that of Marc Hauser
with several monkey species, which offer newer developments in the search
to grasp the primate mind. Hauser with several species of monkeys seems to me
to search for the functional aspects of the nonhuman primate mind while
bypassing language.
In contrast, work with Washoe and Koko has the goal of establishing
communication between apes and humans using, necessarily, some form of
human language. Setting aside the question of what, precisely, is required to
demonstrate language (syntax? referential pointing? clarity? meaning?), enculturation of the nonhuman primate within human society appears to be useful if
not necessary.
The role of enculturation–whether it merely confounds an infinite number of
causative variables or explains why bonobos are seemingly so successful at
generating meaningful English sentences–will be recognized by our historian as a
far more longstanding issue than is admitted. When Robert Lee Thorndike [1898]
performed his classic studies showing how several species learned to make an
operant response (opening a door to allow departure from a ‘‘puzzle box’’), he
showed the reliability and cross-species similarity that came to be called the
‘‘learning curve.’’ A year later, T. Wesley Mills [1899] published a criticism based
on the notion that an animal placed in a ‘‘puzzle box, whether or not the box
removed cues and unwanted associations, destroyed what is essential about the
animal being ‘tested’.’’ The argument reappears between classic ethologists and
comparative psychologists, between field workers and experimentalists, and is
logically unresolvable.
This book sometimes reads as if Dr. Samuel Johnson went alone to the
Hebrides and Boswell annotated the resulting diary later in the comforts of
London. However awkward the approach may be in terms of style, we can profit
from hearing these two distinct voices–the one seemingly reporting on the tour,
and the other offering us mature thoughts gained from decades of experience and
achievement (the latter from a most worthy participant in the pioneering efforts
to understand the animal mind). It is heart-warming to read a book on ‘‘animal
language’’ that is neither arrogant nor defensive in tone.
It matters much whether our goal is to be understood as outlining the
functions of the animal mind or establishing meaningful communication with
a nonhuman animal. The historian will understand that the book is oriented
toward animal linguistic communication, just as the subtitle (Ape, Dolphin, and
Parrot Language Skills) indicates.
I very much hope that our historian will have the sensitivity to disregard the
less-seemly aspects of the animal-language argument as it has developed during
our times, including the public quarreling and incivility that show nothing more
than a loss of interest in, and respect for, the important question being asked.
Am. J. Primatol. DOI 10.1002/ajp
516 / Candland
Rather, I hope the historian will concentrate on certain aspects of this history
that are certain to recur, namely the difficulty of finding the financial resources
required for lifelong studies of the animal mind, the question of what becomes of
(especially) great apes that finish their scientifically useful life long before they
finish their natural life, and the appropriateness of subjecting any animal to the
restrictions or enculturations (or lack thereof) required by research. These are all
matters about which we are forewarned in Animal Bodies, Human Minds, and we
can be grateful that the long view of these research programs alerts us to them.
It is a requirement of reviewers to judge a work against the authors’
announced goals. I think the putative historian and I would agree that Hillix and
Rumbaugh’s reach surpasses their grasp in their plan to ‘‘settle most of the
problems in interpreting the animal behaviors that have been observed in studies
of animal language ability’’ (p. vi). But the stretch required for the reach
encourages the authors to make sound judgments on past arguments and to
highlight why the history of animal–human language studies has been so
cantankerous. Some of these issues, despite the authors’ attempts, remain
unsettled and are likely to remain so far beyond even our historian’s time. As this
book makes evident, a generation of animal-language study and controversy has
spawned a second-generation set of clever studies of the animal mind. These
studies are often based on concepts and experiments from human developmental
psychology, and often use dependent variables other than linguistically-derived
I find this work to be a welcome enlargement of the story of animal–human
language investigations. What do animals know? How are their minds like or
unlike the human mind, and how similar are the two in terms of how they
operate? The human mind wants to know this, whether such knowledge is useful
or not. Those who follow the changes in thinking about the workings of
nonhuman and primate minds can be grateful for the rich, sometimes charmingly
counterpoint, and yet harmonious duet sung throughout this work.
Mills T. 1899. The nature of animal intelligence and the methods of investigating it.
Psychol Rev 6:262–274.
Thorndike E. 1898. ‘‘Animal intelligence,’’ an
experimental study of the associative process
in animals. Psychol Rev Mono Suppl 2:1–109.
Douglas K. Candland
Program in Animal Behavior,
Bucknell University,
Lewisburg, PA 17837
Am. J. Primatol. DOI 10.1002/ajp
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figs, kluwer, aprimate, mind, academicplenum, duane, rumbaugh, 310, bodies, human, journey, new, dolphin, parrot, ape, york, hillis, language, animals, 2004, skills, review, publisher
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