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Unread November 8th, 2007, 01:13 PM
Rosanne Rosanne is offline
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Post Washoe's passing October 30th, 2007

Washoe, a Chimp of Many Words, Dies at 42
Central Washington University
Deborah and Roger Fouts in 1995 with Washoe, who was able to use American Sign Language.



By BENEDICT CAREY
Published: November 1, 2007
She spent her early years playing in the backyard of a small house in Reno, Nev., learning American Sign Language from the scientists who adopted her, and by age 5 she had mastered enough signs to capture the world’s attention and set off a debate over nonhuman primates’ ability to learn human language that continues to this day.

But on Tuesday night, Washoe, a chimpanzee born in West Africa, died after a short illness, said Mary Lee Jensvold, assistant director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where Washoe had lived and learned for more than two decades. The chimp died in bed at age 42, surrounded by staff members and other primates who had been close to her, Dr. Jensvold said.

Scientists had tried without success to teach nonhuman primates to imitate vocal sounds when R. Allen Gardner and Beatrix T. Gardner, cognitive researchers, adopted the 10-month-old chimp from military scientists in 1966. The Gardners, skeptical that other primates could adequately speak human words, taught Washoe American Sign Language, encouraging her gestures until she made signs that were reliably understandable.

A 1969 report by the Gardners on Washoe’s progress “opened up the entire field: it was absolutely frontier-breaking work,” said Duane Rumbaugh, scientist emeritus at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a research center.

One claim, that Washoe signed “water” and “bird” upon seeing a swan “was like getting an S.O.S. from outer space,” the Harvard psychologist Roger Brown said at the time.

Language scientists around the world began their own projects, to try to replicate and extend the Gardners’ findings. But the excitement died down in the late 1970s, when Herbert Terrace, a cognitive researcher at Columbia, published a report on a chimpanzee he had been trying to teach language, named Nim Chimpsky. Nim could learn signs, but did so primarily by imitating teachers, Dr. Terrace found by reviewing videos of interactions.

“There was no spontaneity, no real use of grammar,” Dr. Terrace said. He analyzed a video of Washoe, who learned about 130 signs, and said he found evidence that she, too, was reacting to prompts, not engaging in anything like human conversation.

Researchers altered their approach and began teaching with word symbols, called lexigrams, in which symbols stand for words. They also created environments in which animals learned as infants do, first by imitation and later by observation — by watching others communicate, then trying it themselves.

Dr. Rumbaugh said a number of chimps and pygmy chimpanzees learned this way and “the evidence screams out that apes have a capacity for a very basic dimension of language.”

“They don’t get contracts to write books,” he said, “they don’t get invited to give talks, they don’t vote and so on, but their intellectual functioning overlaps” in some ways with humans.

Many scientists still are not convinced. But all agree that Washoe, named for the county in Nevada where she spent her early years, prompted all the excitement and debate, even if she did not answer all the questions her abilities raised.

A former student of the Gardners, Roger Fouts, and his wife, Deborah, took Washoe in 1980 to Ellensburg, Wash., where she became matriarch to three younger chimps, Loulis, Tatu and Dar. She had a gentle touch with them, Dr. Jensvold said, and kept an eye on the habits — and footwear — of her human companions.

“She always checked out your shoes, and if you had new ones she’d sign for you to show them to her,” Dr. Jensvold said. “Then she might sign something about the color. She was a real shoe lady that way.”

Last edited by Rosanne; November 8th, 2007 at 01:18 PM. Reason: title correction
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