Friday, January 25, 2019

Review of Dialogues on the Human Ape by Dubreuil and Savage-Rumbaugh

Laurent Dubreuil and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Dialogues on the Human Ape. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-1517905651. $27US, paper. 248 pages.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to a number of audiences: those participating in lab research using primates; animal studies professionals; moral and cognitive philosophers; animal rights activists; the gamut of teachers and professors involved in interdisciplinary or consciousness studies. This book appears in an important series on Post-humanities, so academics and researchers in that field would certainly find much value in this volume as well. The book is intellectually and emotionally engaging, well written, and nicely organized. At the same time, some of the subject matter of the book is a bit disturbing in how it demonstrates the degree to which “scientists” can be somewhat cavalier in treating “animals” of high order sentience and sapience. In that regard I am not referring to the authors, of course, but to some of the people – from philanthropists to colleagues – Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh worked with in her efforts to meet the chimpanzees and bonobos on an equal plane, like persons, while others did not. So I hope the story will inspire some readers to begin working for animal rights. The book serves as a nice complement to the recent work done by, for example, animal rights attorney Steven Wise (Rattling the Cage) and cognitive psychologist/philosopher Kristin Andrews, et al. (Chimpanzee Rights). The question of what is “human” is at the center of the book, and some uninitiated readers might find the discussion both troubling yet enlightening in how the authors suggest a redefinition of human to include great apes.

All in all, Dialogues on the Human Ape by Dubreuil and Savage-Rumbaugh is a powerful and welcome manifesto advocating for the extraordinary mental and social capabilities of apes to integrate themselves into the human cultural community. I strongly recommend this book.  

While I read widely in this area, I was naively unaware of some of the un-collegial turmoil that could occur and what Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has had to suffer personally and professionally. The book was an eye opener in this regard and provides an intriguing history of the career of Savage-Rumbaugh, including some of the unsettling events she’s had to endure at the hands of people she trained in their zeal for professional advancement. In this way, the book, through a series of dialogues, almost reads like an eighteenth century epistolary novel – there’s a multi-vocal plot with dynamic characters and a protagonist who perseveres in spite of her antagonists. At the same time, because of Laurent Dubreuil’s incredibly wide knowledge of philosophy, the book also reads like a Socratic dialogue probing definitions and unfolding truths, and I think this multi-dimensionality is deliberate and effective. On a literary level the book is of very high quality, indeed, as it blends two distinct narrative voices (one scientific and the other philosophical) into one comprehensible thematic strand around the nature of what it means to be human.

The human desire to communicate with animals over history is documented in the book’s Introduction. Recent science has enabled ape language studies, and an historical overview is provided here, too. American Sign Language with apes did not seem wholly appropriate to their anatomy, so in the 1970s at the Yerkes primate lab in Atlanta, Georgia, lexigrams on a keyboard were used. Upon college graduation, Sue Savage was accepted to Harvard to study with B.F. Skinner, but she wisely turned down that offer when a haphazard meeting at the University of Oklahoma with Roger Fouts turned into a three day stay. She remained at UOK. Upon graduation she began work at Georgia State University in the 1980s on language research with chimpanzees, and in 1985 the bonobo Kanzi appears. The rest is history – or if you don’t know the story, then get this book and read it!

Young Kanzi “spontaneously” learned the lexigrams while the researchers tried to teach his adoptive mom, Matata. Other apes, chimpanzees and bonobos, were brought into his group, and eventually Kanzi learned to respond to spoken English. The focus was on establishing a culture around the apes so that they were not “learning” in small increments for a few hours a day while confined to cages. They experienced a full life under the ultimate direction of Savage-Rumbaugh. In the early 2000s Georgia State sold the bonobos to a “philanthropist” who set up a fancy lab (The Great Ape Trust) with academics who marginalized Savage-Rumbaugh. A flood nearly killed the apes, and when Teco was born, only Sue and her sister because of their expertise and care could assist with the newborn. In 2010 and 2011 Laurent Dubreuil visited the Trust and met Sue. He was impressed with the high level of “human language” utilized by the apes, Kanzi, Panbanisha, and Nyota. In 2011 Dubreuil talked to Sue for hours in the lab, about language, the bonobos, and philosophy, and sometimes the apes would participate in the conversation.

The core of the book is, according to Dubreuil, dia logon or language and reason among apes. He witnesses this ape and ape/human dialogic culture as an outside observer. Being human is not automatic but a possibility, says Dubreuil, via enculturation, and that’s exactly what Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has done with these apes. Previously, other apes had been enculturated in what we would consider “human” activities, like Chantek (orangutan) and Koko (gorilla). So by its potential nature, we see human in great apes. As Savage-Rumbaugh points out, Kanzi’s “language” came about because of his real life interactions and dialogues. Language is “embedded dialogue” and “meaning making,” and so too in Kanzi. Abstract thought and reference to others is highly developed in Kanzi, perhaps more so than in Koko or Chantek, say the authors, because the other apes (in spite of their accomplishments) were not fully dialogic since there was more emphasis on data collection and simple questions and requests. With Kanzi, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh had been “friends” with his mom Matata, and so Kanzi was reared in social dialogue. Before the move to the Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, Sue used to go into the forest with Kanzi and talk about everything they saw, which in turn provided reference to things, memories, and ideas not present. According to Savage-Rumbaugh, the ape group was exposed to books, television, and movies where they learned, e.g., of ape captures in Africa. She claims – and I believe this – that they were creating selves and becoming moral. Accepting the bonobo and having the ape willingly include Laurent Dubreuil and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh in dialogue creates a person.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh wonders if “animal” is a legitimate word to apply to the bonobos she’s dialogued with. Even the bonobos don’t like being referred to as “animals.” Laurent Dubreuil notes how Georges Bataille commented the paintings at Lascaux mark a moment of separation between human/animal, though Savage-Rumbaugh questions this about early people. By the Middle Ages and Renaissance, paintings exclusively depict humans. Laurent points out how the distinction between human/animal was not for ancient people so magnified as it is now. For the Greeks, there was simply an overall question of what it means to be alive, whether human or animal. The authors point out how the definition of “animal” depends on the social situation. For example, nowadays since there are more vegetarians and vegans, those groups would define “animal” differently than meat eaters. Savage-Rumbaugh points out how there is likely a chimp/other categorization in the chimpanzee but not in the bonobo mind. Chimpanzees eat other animals for food and in some cases kill other chimps in aggressive territorial conflicts.

Dubreuil says the me/other distinction doesn’t necessarily have to generate from discourse but can be a nonverbal descriptor of the group. Dubreuil refers to the constructed category of animal as fictive, since it serves human needs in our ignorance about nonhuman species. Savage-Rumbaugh says we need changes to the definitions of ape and even species. These too are constructs to ease human separation from others, for besides morphological and genetic differences (or similarities) what are the truly fundamental categorical variations? Some say language, but apes can “speak” and, in fact, Sue attached a voice machine to the keyboard only to have it removed when the bonobos were shifted to Iowa where the Ape Cognition and Communication Initiative (ACCI) took control. She says the human powers of the facility wanted to keep the bonobos in their place, and not in a human category. Yet the voiced keyboards were used by autistic children with enthusiasm by their parents. Likewise, the parents wanted the word SORRY added to the keyboard, even if the child did not understand or mean it. Meanwhile, Sue’s Iowa colleagues resisted adding SORRY to Kanzi’s keyboard because they believed he was incapable of regret. This shows the sometimes artificial divide between culture and science.

Savage-Rumbaugh created a mythological world of characters for Kanzi and Panbanisha (Matata’s biological daughter), and they responded to the symbolism recognizing its meaningfulness to such a degree that she feared its influence over them. So she stopped, to her regret, under the recommendation of others. In this way, bonobos are clearly capable of understanding and partaking in a symbolic world, which does not seem possible, e.g., with dogs and cats. This ability of figurative representation is beyond self-recognition or self-awareness. Rather, the construction of the symbolic world comes through language and discourse. Matata and Nyota were involved, too, with some individuals more immersed in the mythology than others.

At Yerkes early on, Matata was uninterested in the symbol system of lexigrams, while Kanzi and Panbanisha picked it up readily. Matata, however, often verbalized with gestures to Sue, as if beckoning the human to speak “bonobo” and not English. However, with the move to Iowa, Matata would use the keyboard on the sly when she thought no one was looking, so she had the ability of signs. In fact, once when Matata was sick, she signed to Sue on the keyboard for green medicine, symbols Sue did not think Matata knew. The green probably represented something medicinal from the forest, suggesting that Matata was not just signing about feeling better but about the concept of good health. At the Iowa facility, the bonobos came to know, and disliked the experience of, being scientific subjects studied by humans.

Before Iowa and what eventually became ACCI, the bonobos were near a forest in Georgia, which helped shape their perceptions of the world. In Iowa, they were basically relegated to a yard enclosure. This observation has direct bearing on the question of ape consciousness. Dubreuil sees consciousness as a theoretical question “challenged” by a modern focus on the unconscious and he even asks if we require the concept of consciousness at all. Can the notion of “consciousness,” he wonders, be like “society” or “humanness” as a construct tied up with language and meaning. In a discussion of Greek and ancient thought and literature, the authors note how dialogues altered the landscape of social thought, how something passes through those engaged in dialogue that enables a personal “change” where what was previously external becomes internal. This is not to say such internalization did not occur before ancient literature; it’s just that we have those works on record. Dubreuil says that the appearance of consciousness as we now understand it appears late in literature and philosophy and comes as a social construction. Apes share joint intentions via “modulation” of consciousness through dialogue. Neither author necessarily sees consciousness as the height of so-called humanity; sometimes we are not conscious. They see degrees of consciousness with “levels” of access that was evident in the evocative forest environment that stimulated dialogue but not in the confines of the Iowa backyard.

The work of Savage-Rumbaugh routinely points to how the great apes actively employ recursive thinking – i.e., thoughts that return and repeat, circling back and around each other with meaning and purpose. As a simple example, Savage-Rumbaugh worked with chimpanzee Sherman in counting, and he mastered this mental ability. Chimps also can quickly learn how to choose the right solution from several possibilities, indicating that a mental dialogue is going on about past experience, expectations, and outcomes. This type of mental interfacing mimics the dialogues with the apes, which promotes reflection and fosters more discourse. Dialogue, say these authors, helps create consciousness, in how, e.g., Sue and Laurent are able to understand the apes by their own “words.”

In retrospect, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh realizes she might have underestimated the true potential of the apes, and she provides some examples. On the other hand, her critics accuse her of overestimating the apes. Consciousness is control over mind and includes symbolic thinking. The book demonstrates how one can engage in a conscious dialogue where the ape and the interlocutor are both self-aware of each other’s autonomous agency as a thinking being. This probably cannot be achieved with most “animals” – though, on second thought, in that statement I am likely anthropocentric and underestimating the mental capacities of other living creatures. As the authors note, consciousness is a process of building and clarifying a self from an environment, where Savage-Rumbaugh, as an experimental psychologist, says that beyond any evolution of the body consciousness itself evolves over time. The point Savage-Rumbaugh seems to make is that in terms of psychological development and enculturation, since apes have a layer of consciousness that rises to the level of symbolism, she can teach them more, and they can better learn, than most other animals. As Laurent Dubreuil points out, the apes are capable of separating the self to imagine others for new possibilities, which permits expansion of consciousness.

The authors briefly discuss a study from China where Rhesus monkeys learned to recognize themselves in mirrors. (Mirror self-recognition does not come naturally to monkeys as it does to humans, great apes, dolphins, elephants, etc.) The China study is important because it shows how a concept of self can be learned; in turn, recognizing the self in relation to another can permit symbolic consciousness, which can eventually lead to “language,” where the internal world becomes expressed externally to another. In light of such research on monkeys, a basic question taking into account evolutionary scale might follow like this: Can a great ape use reference, i.e., where symbols stand in for or represent objects? Symbols are in the mind and can be employed in a variety of ways in different contexts and patterns with each other for thought and communication. The initial research by Dr. Duane Rumbaugh and Sue was not associative conditioning of objects to words, because with that approach the subject has difficulty generalizing. The word animal, for instance, has many different physical forms, and that knowledge only comes through reference.

The book provides a behind-the-scenes look at theoreticians and researchers. The authors, for example, have long discussions about the limitations of Chomsky’s theories and the lab work of Herbert Terrace (on Nim Chimpsky) and Michael Tomasello (of the Max Planck Institute). Savage-Rumbaugh says that Terrace did not consider Nim’s emotional states and that Tomasello refuses to consider, regarding ape “language,” the morphological/physical differences between human/ape. Tomasello, she says, does not consider how to handle the ape, how the background of the being needs to be considered. She goes on to say how ACCI is now looking only at bits of the ape and not his or her history of development and rearing. Some scientists want to study, in a lab setting (ironically), the innate instincts of apes and not raise them in any human way via referential dialogue, which might be more revealing. Savage-Rumbaugh raised apes into human culture to demonstrate their intellectual and social flexibility. While the authors admit it’s difficult to do so, measuring context is important in ape/human dialogue. For instance, in early work by Duane Rumbaugh with Lana, the chimp often made mistakes that others held against her without considering her upbringing and the fact that she was asked to communicate through a machine. Meantime, young children in a more stimulating environment often make mistakes in early language, and that is not held against them.

In spite of her difficulties, Savage-Rumbaugh came to realize that Lana achieved syntactical grammar and symbolic reference in her “language,” a huge accomplishment. This is why later Savage-Rumbaugh began speaking to the apes and not expecting them to verbalize only with a machine through trial and error. Note, however, that the authors seem to suggest that it is unfair to say ape language, since as any bonobo taught this language is not really ungrammatical or without syntax. Tomasello, once Sue’s student, acknowledges “languaged” apes but does not believe they “communicate” – and they say Tomasello’s position is “weird” and anthropocentric. For Tomasello, communication requires cooperation. However, Laurent Dubreuil says there’s immense data demonstrating how the bonobos communicate intentions in order to involve the thinking, or more, of their interlocutor. This can work when apes are reared in a languaged environment, and not only during one-hour sessions, as done by early researchers like Premack and Fouts. Those who used languaged environments include the Hayes and Gardners. Contrary to Tomasello, what Savage-Rumbaugh shows is that apes communicate and don’t just use “language” to obtain objects.

The apes had ready access to food in Atlanta and so were not communicating for the sake of getting something; they talked about other issues and ideas. However, in Iowa, where promises to Sue about continuing her work were made and then broken in very infelicitous ways, food was not readily available to the apes, so they had to ask for it. Then, not surprisingly, they hoarded it. So the communication is tied to the environment they experience, and not the cognitive abilities (or supposed lack thereof). This is contrary to what Tomasello has written. Likewise, when the apes are in a cognitively rich world, they have much to communicate; if they are in a Spartan world, there’s really nothing to talk about. Neuroplasticity is common to apes and humans; if you deprive a human child of a content-rich environment, he too will not thrive.

The final section on will makes the essential point that there is free will through language, and so demonstrated in the apes as in humans. Language and symbolic layers are the embodiment of the intentional (free) making of a self, says Savage-Rumbaugh, exhibited by the bonobos, especially when they were moved from Georgia to Iowa and expressed their dissatisfaction and anxiety. Because of the ape free will articulated through language and enculturation, much could also be learned about improving human society. This section culminates in a discussion about Sue’s conference presentation and subsequently published paper where she includes the bonobos as co-authors. Many eyebrows were raised in the “scientific” community, but why not include them since Savage-Rumbaugh interviewed Kanzi, Panbanisha, and Nyota and they communicated about their unhappy move to the lab confines of Des Moines. The upshot is that Sue fears that because her work stopped in Des Moines under ACCI, the apes will languish as they are only seen as animals and not as persons.

I don’t know that I’d label this book as a research study per se; but, having said that, in the spirit of Montaigne it reflects an ocean of leaning and knowledge from two exceptional thinkers meditating on what it means to be a human ape – from consciousness to free will. There is a timeline appendix, along with notes and an index. The book is engaging and accessible, and I highly recommended it for anyone interested in animal studies or the debate about ape personhood. On a more personal note, there’s even something sad about this story as I consider the fate and future of these ape persons, and others so situated, in facilities that do not respect the type of rich encultured rearing shown by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., Professor of English/Interdisciplinary Studies, St. Francis College, N.Y. Author of, recently: Making Mind (2014); Evolution and Human Culture (2016); Art and Adaptability (2018). Editor, ASEBL Journal and blog.

copyright©2019 by Gregory F. Tague – all rights reserved