Into the great debate over intelligence and instinct -- over what makes us human -- Susan Savage-Rumbaugh has thrown a monkey wrench. Her work with apes has forced a new way of looking at what traits are truly and distinctly human, and new questions about whether some abilities we attribute to "species" are in fact due to an animal's social environment. She believes culture and tradition, in many cases more than biology, can account for differences between humans and other primates.More: Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on the welfare of apes in captivity.
Her bonobo apes, including a superstar named Kanzi, understand spoken English, interact, and have learned to execute tasks once believed limited to humans -- such as starting and controlling a fire. They aren't trained in classic human-animal fashion. Like human children, the apes learn by watching. "Parents really don't know how they teach their children language," she has said. "Why should I have to know how I teach Kanzi language? I just act normal around him, and he learns it."
That has to make religious fundamentalists just a little uncomfortable.
On one hand, the flap over "interpreters" for autistic children makes some of these claims problematic. On the other hand, most of these claims are buttressed by the behavior of bonobos in the wild.
There is no question that Kanzi learned by watching -- a finding that should have transformed the entire field of primate language studies: teaching adult primates is hopeless, as it would be if someone tried to teach adult humans who had missed the window of opportunity for acquiring language.
There is also no question that zoos, no matter how enlightened, do not fulfill the requirements of intelligent animals, from bonobos to elephants to large cats.
Personally, I think that bonobos have a lot to teach us, especially in contra-distinction to the better studied chimpanzees. However, for Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh's points to gain traction, someone else needs to independently replicate her findings -- a tall order, given the requirements and time frame.
In the meantime, the bonobos may be heading for extinction.
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