Washoe, 42, Dies

This has not been a great year for the pioneers in animal-human communications. In the late summer, Alex the Parrot died at Brandeis University. And, now comes word that Washoe, the chimpanzee who learned 250 words of American Sign Language, has died at the age of 42 in the state of Washington. Back in the mid- and late-1960s, Washoe's adoptive caretakers, R. Allen and Beatrix T. Gardner, began to teach the young chimp to use American Sign Language. Their efforts were a way of circumventing the inability of primates other than humans to vocalize sounds across a broad range of frequencies. Roger and Debbie Fouts took over the early work of the Gardners with Washoe at their research center at Central Washington University.

In the four decades since Washoe's adoption, researchers from a variety of universities and perspectives have worked to establish the parameters of animal (particularly primate) language abilities and the potential for animal-human communications. As Dr. Rosalyn King has summarized on her website, these efforts extend beyond Washoe and the team at Central Washington University to include important projects such as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh with Kanzi, Duane Rumbaugh (Georgia State University) and the Language Research Center, Matsuzawa Teturo and the chimp, Ai (Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan) and several others.

The success of these efforts has been highly disputed by such linguistic and psychological scholars as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Neither of them believe that these primates have actually learned an actual language rather than a sophisticated series of behaviors which receive reinforcement such as feeding. Some researchers have concluded that primates fail to use sign language spontaneously, an observation which undermines the notion of real language learning. Nevertheless, those who have worked with animals such as Washoe argue that their charges learn language at the level similar to the abilities of a 2 1/2 year old human child. Obviously the debate will continue. For now, though, one of the founding figures of these conversations will no longer take part in them


Alex the Parrot