Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jon Cohen's "Almost Chimpanzee"

Jon Cohen is the author of Shots in the Dark and Coming to Term. He is a correspondent at the internationally renowned Science magazine and has also written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Discover, Smithsonian, and Slate.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos, and reported the following:
From Page 99:

I FIRST “SPOKE” WITH APES IN MARCH 2008. THEY WERE BOTH bonobos, twenty-seven-year-old Kanzi and his twenty-two-year-old half-sister, Panbanisha, and they lived at the Great Ape Trust outside Des Moines, Iowa.

The Great Ape Trust is the last bastion of “ape language research,” a controversial scientific endeavor that began more than a century ago and has won tremendous attention in the press, spawned many books, and even became fodder for a Hollywood movie starring an actor who later became president of the United States. Sitting on 230 acres in a rural neighborhood that includes a man-made lake, the trust owes its existence to hot dogs, in keeping with the often bizarre nature of ape language research. Ted Townsend, a local heir to the fortune his father made from the Frankomatic machine, donated $25 million to create the state-of-the-art facility, which when I visited housed seven bonobos and, separately, three orangutans. The trust’s researchers had made Kanzi the most famous bonobo in the world by showcasing his extraordinary communication skills. Before I met with him, William Fields, who directed the bonobo research, let me in on a surprising secret about his less known half-sister.

We sat in Fields’s office in the thirteen-thousand-square-foot bonobo building. A hallway and a concrete block wall separated us from the area where the bonobos lived. Fields explained to me that there had only been three scientific articles published about Panbanisha’s communication skills so far, and as the researchers accrue more data, “Kanzi will have to share the limelight with the real ape of genius.”
Washoe the chimpanzee, Koko the gorilla, and Kanzi the bonobo have become superstar apes—in the human world at least—because of their remarkable communication skills. Each was involved with ape language research, a branch of science that dates back more than a century and once was all the rage but today barely exists. Unlike ape communication research, which attempts to understand the vocalizations and gestures they use to pass information between members of their own species, ape language research teaches the animals sign language or symbols that they can then use to communicate with humans.

This passage opens with my “talking” with Kanzi, his half-sister Panbanisha, and other apes at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, which has the only extant program that does this type of research. I go on to explore the history of ape language research, including the ever-colorful Richard Lynch Garner who in the 1890s lived in a cage in Gabon to better understand ape language, and to examine the stark differences between us and them. I conclude that Sanskrit scholar Friedrich Max Müller had it right when he declared in 1861 that “the one great barrier between the brute and man is Language.”
Read an excerpt from Almost Chimpanzee, and learn more about the book and author at Jon Cohen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue