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Love Story

NEXT OF KIN: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are. By Roger Fouts with Stephen Tukel Mills . A Living Planet Book/William Morrow: 420 pp., $25

October 12, 1997|RICHARD WRANGHAM | Richard Wrangham is the author of "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence."

Fouts recalls many instances reminiscent of human behavior. There were adult males who escaped from their colony by twisting the chain-like fence but would never do it if they were being watched. There was a chimpanzee named Lucy teaching her kitten to use the toilet by dangling her over it, waiting, then flushing. There was a time when Washoe refused to step on a doormat until she had tested it by putting a doll on it first. The argument for mental similarity, based purely on such observations, is persuasive. But the ape-human connection becomes especially striking when direct communication with the subjects is possible. Take Washoe's interaction with Kat, for example. Kat was a volunteer who came to work every day with Washoe when the chimpanzee was 17 years old. When Kat became pregnant, Washoe was fascinated. Washoe had had two pregnancies of her own (both ending in early death), and she paid regular attention to Kat's belly and the baby inside. Using sign language, she would ask about the baby. Then, without warning, Kat stopped coming to see Washoe. When Kat returned, Washoe greeted her warmly but became unusually distant toward her. It seemed as if Washoe had been hurt by Kat's absence. Kat told Washoe why she had stopped coming. She had miscarried. "My baby died," Kat signed. Washoe looked down, then at Kat and signed "cry." "Please person hug," she signed later, when Kat had to go.

Such interactions in "Next of Kin" light up the accounts of chimpanzees like Washoe, Lucy, Ally, Loulis and Booee and highlight the importance of emotion and bonding in the language experiments. By the time we read about Washoe signing Ally's name when meeting him after four years of separation, we realize that it's their special friendship that makes Washoe want to sign. When Washoe took a chair to her 1-year-old son and tutored him by signing "chair sit," it's because she cared about what he did. When Fouts persuaded Washoe to stay indoors by telling her that "big black dog out there eats little chimpanzees," which caused Washoe to retreat to the farthest corner and sign "no no dog," it becomes clear that it was possible only because of the special trust between them. Fouts argues convincingly that all communication, whether between humans or chimpanzees, requires an emotional component beyond the simple manipulation of symbols.

Skeptics worry that students of ape signing over-interpret their observations. Fouts shows that some of these concerns are unfounded. For example, the idea that apes have been given rewards to use sign language has been proved wrong, most dramatically by Washoe's adopted son Loulis, who learned signing from her without human participation. But when Lucy signed "cry hurt food" after eating a radish for example, was she naming the radish, or merely giving three different responses to the sensation of eating it? After all, she used this combination only once. Fouts says that chimpanzees can invent two- or three-word names, but the case doesn't look settled yet.

In "Next of Kin" Fouts presents much of the evidence that suggests that chimpanzee signing is a linguistic skill, and he responds to some of the challenges of the evidence, elegantly explaining why he thinks human linguistic abilities go back to our ape origins. But he steps aside from a full confrontation with the naysayers because he has more important things to do.

During the long search for a permanent home for Washoe (which they eventually find at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash.), Fouts begins to feel outraged about the treatment of chimpanzees used for science. He witnesses chimpanzees kept in tiny cages, living alone, poorly cared for or subjected to needless and cruel experiments. He is troubled by the nagging reminders that chimpanzees can live for more than 60 years and that the United States still has hundreds of chimpanzees that were recruited for the space program and aren't needed anymore.

By the time we learn about how poorly chimpanzees are treated (often in disregard of federal regulations), the issue of the degree of their linguistic skill becomes less important than the fact that each one needs looking after. Lucy, who signed on the cover of Life magazine in 1972, was released into the wild and killed by unidentified people in 1988. Ally was returned to the biomedical world and is apparently part of a toxin testing program in New Mexico. Booee spent years in a tiny cage and was injected with hepatitis C. The lucky ones, like Washoe, have one thing in common; they have someone who cared.

What Fouts has learned from chimpanzees is that Descartes was wrong. Other animals do have minds. The reason chimpanzees are chosen for experiments is that they are so like us; our compassion should be greater. That argument isn't new, but in "Next of Kin," it is based on an unparalleled depth of understanding and on a uniquely personal involvement in the battles over congressional legislation and laboratory management. You cannot read this book and stay neutral.

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