Commentary — August 6, 2012, 12:58 pm

A Q&A with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

sue-savage-rumbaugh

In 2011, Time magazine recognized Sue Savage-Rumbaugh as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World for her research into language among bonobo apes, which has profoundly altered our understanding of language, learning, social behavior, and cognition in primates. I write about Savage-Rumbaugh in an essay on the history of ape language research in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine. When her work with bonobos began, Sue and her colleagues were trying to get Matata, an adult female, to understand a system of lexigrams—arbitrary, nonrepresentative pictures indicating everyday meanings. Matata did not learn them, but her adopted infant Kanzi, who was present for the experiments, began picking them up spontaneously, with no deliberate instruction.

The experiment has since grown to include a family of bonobos, including Kanzi’s sister, Panbanisha, and recently, Teco, a two-year-old male, who are conversant in the evolving system of lexigrams, and are receptive to an astonishing level of spoken English. After decades of being based at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center, Savage-Rumbaugh’s experiment in developing a culture shared between apes and humans moved in 2004 to the Great Ape Trust, a privately-funded research facility near Des Moines that was recently reorganized and renamed the Bonobo Hope Learning Sanctuary.

I recently spoke with Savage-Rumbaugh across several days. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

BH: Before beginning your research into lexigrams at Georgia State, you studied at Bill Lemon’s chimp-research facility at the University of Oklahoma, which now has a very mixed reputation, having been described at times as brutal and inhumane. In his memoir, Next of Kin, chimp researcher Roger Fouts makes the facility sound like a very strange place.

SSR: It was a rare and unusual place. I had been admitted to Harvard, and on my way there to study with B. F. Skinner, I went to a lecture by Roger. He brought a chimpanzee, Booee, to class, and demonstrated his ability to make a sign when an object was held up. He said that volunteers could come to the ape farm to help him teach four young apes signs. I volunteered, and knew within days that I was not going to Harvard—I was staying at OU, where I could learn about culture and human behavior in a way that was not possible anywhere else on earth. There were things that were unusual at the “chimp farm”—for one, Lemon got prisoners to do most of the ape care, getting them out on good behavior as their psychiatrist, and promising to rehabilitate them. He felt that the exposure to apes was helpful to them.

At the chimp farm there were chimpanzees (reared in human environments, peer environments, and normal ape environments), gibbons, several species of macaques, macaws, peacocks, dogs, humans, baboons, siamangs, and pigs—all subjects of rearing studies. It was an amazing place. The differences I saw in chimpanzees reared in different environments made me realize that Skinner underestimated the role of language and culture in shaping behavior in some powerful ways that were completely independent of “rewards,” in his sense of the word.

BH: How did your research evolve from earlier psychological and language experiments with great apes?

SSR: The cultural transmission that has happened here goes far beyond anything that has happened in other ape projects. This is because of the “for real” inclusion of apes into the human world and the human familial system. Language is a way of being and living, and their lives here are based on human values, morals, and family. We do not have “subjects,” we have “relatives.” They eat, sleep, and live with us. Even the Gardners, who prided themselves on their method of “sign immersion,” put Washoe in a cage at night. Teco sleeps with me. I am there as much for him as any mother is there for her child, and in many cases more. This is the critical variable; this method fosters the identification required with others for rapid self-learning of language. The lexigrams make it easy, since the bonobo’s voice box is so different from ours.

BH: You’ve spoken of “epigenetics as a mechanism of change—not evolution—but change.” What did you mean by this?

SSR: The classical view of evolution is that gene selection is a function of effective reproductive advantage, which produces change over time. “Epigenetics” are the “epi” phenomena that exist around the genes—the genes’ environment, if you will. The environment—including the culture—determines the gene-activation profile. You may have genes that in some environments do not turn on, or that turn on for a shorter or longer period, or turn off and on in different relative ratios. The “environment” is determined, in large measure, by the culture, which for humans includes buildings of certain styles, patterns of traffic flow, expectations regarding strangers, foods, and so on. These environmental effluvia determine the gene-activation pattern. Thus, as you change the culture, you change the gene-activation pattern and the ways in which the genes manifest their presence in the behavior, physiology, and structure of the organism. That which is “selected,” then, is the whole organism, and the organism is driven by its culture to become what it is.

For example, human babies do not cling with their feet—it has generally been assumed that this is because the feet are not designed to cling. Teco’s feet were designed to cling, but he does not cling with them; it appears that the neuronal code in this case causes many changes before the anatomical changes emerge that go along with human feet. Teco evidences strong handedness, more conscious ability to control his wrists, fingers, toes, tongue, and breathing—he is moving much more rapidly down the path toward human enculturation than Kanzi did. Kanzi was born into a world in which he did not need to cling with his feet in order to survive—but he did cling with his feet. Teco illustrates how rapidly (within two or three generations, neural changes are occurring in the genetic activation pattern) structural changes can happen, and the effect they have on the body as well as group behavior. A mother caring for an infant whose feet do not cling must alter her behavior dramatically if the infant is to survive.

BH: You told me that you’re working toward co-creating (with the bonobos) a hybrid “Pan/Homo” culture. How do you go about doing this?

SSR: People often ask, “Why don’t you try to learn the apes’ language instead of asking them to learn yours?” The answer is that I do try—I try extremely hard. But it is more difficult for humans to learn their language—I realize this statement assumes they have one—than it is for them to learn ours. I have learned a lot about Matata’sMatata is Kanzi’s adoptive mother; she did not learn the lexigrams. cultural constructions. She sees the world in a very different manner than we human beings; Kanzi and Panbanisha are able to manage both cultures’ perspectives, though they tend to prefer the human perspective. In deciding to rear Kanzi and Panbanisha both with attachments to Matata and to myself, it was inevitable that they would become bicultural. Just as with a “pidgin” language—a new language made up of two or more distinct languages—one arrives at a pidgin culture made up of two or more cultures. Generally we think of this in terms of human culture. In this case we have gone across the species boundary to create a cross-species pidgin culture.

If one wants to determine how we became human, one has to look at the cultural transitions from quadrupedal to bipedal, from clinging to not clinging, from foraging to carrying food and storing, from inhabiting only warm climates to inhabiting all climates, from fear of fire to control of fire, and so on. These are things we do not because we are human, but because our culture defines them as productive ways of living.

BH: A few years ago, there was some controversy around your leadership of the Great Ape Trust. You told me you were for a time “excised” from the trust for making claims about the intelligence of Panbanisha that others found difficult to believe. What were these claims?

SSR: I was invited by the board and CEO at the timeBonobo Hope has a new board and CEO to leave the trust grounds and become a “scientist emeritus” after publishing an article in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science on the capacity of the bonobos for the process of self-determination. One of the more controversial claims was that the bonobos were producing representational art. This claim was the subject of a master’s thesis by [my student] Itai Roffman that not only substantiated the claim but greatly expanded upon it. The thesis will be published once we find the proper outlet for it.

BH: You also said that Panbanisha and your sister, Liz, thought it best to “hide her talents,” since displaying them had led to “disastrous consequences.” What were these consequences?

SSR: After we had cared for all the bonobos on a daily basis from 1975 till 2004, their care was turned over to individuals who were unable to go in with them or to clearly understand their nonverbal communications and their vocal utterances—which go way beyond their keyboard utterances. As a result, the differences between the experimental and control groups were erased, with the lives of both becoming like those of typical zoo-housed bonobos. In such cases, self-determination is not an option offered to the [apes].

In most zoos, there are always a few caretakers who insist on secretly showing the animals “who is clearly in charge”—just as is the case in human prisons. Panbanisha has become afraid of such people; she did not know this side of humanity before.

BH: What are your plans for Bonobo Hope?

SSR: Our goal is to create a sanctuary for artists—bonobo and human artists—to create interspecies art, music, and object/habitat construction through interspecies communication. Travel is an important part of the life of all primates. Bonobos typically travel through the forest by means of walking—but here they also travel by boat, by car and by Fourtrax. At Bonobo Hope Sanctuary, bonobos and humans will travel side by side, on paths where they will encounter interactive sculpture and interactive art, and hopefully each will become more creative as they observe the activities of the other. Zoos have traditionally been one-sided. That is, they have always been places where animals are looked at by humans, but humans are not looked at in return by the animals. In the case of the Bonobo Hope sanctuary, humans will be traveling and doing things that are of interest to the bonobos. Each species will learn from observing the activities of the other as they travel from place to place.

BH: The Great Ape Trust was only very rarely open to the public. Is your idea to open up the grounds to the general public?

SSR: Ideally, the public flow will be outdoors, with travel to different “creative spaces,” including buildings for certain activities. The center will not be open every day to such activities, but probably more like one or two days a week. At first, we will lack the funding for this kind of campus-wide development, so we will focus only the bonobo building and the former orang building, which is now the visitor center. Our current operating budget is $350,000. It will require $650,000 to safely open the center to the public and approximately $2 million to modify a portion of the campus to permit creative bi-species travel.

BH: If you succeed in raising the funds to make these changes, what do you think the effect of this shift would mean for the bonobos and the public?

SSR: The public will see the bonobos in a one-on-one setting, much as we see them. They will realize their intelligence and there will come a feeling that intelligence is flowing both ways across the physical boundaries separating the species. We will also be including border collies in the bonobos’ space, and these dogs will be able to cross the boundary of separation and go into the humans’ space. When humans see that bonobos interact with the dogs just as they do, it will change their perception of the bonobos.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Benjamin Hale:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2020

Click Here to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vicious Cycles

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Oceans Apart

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Forty-Year Rehearsal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Whale Mother

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Click Here to Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a sunny July day in 2018, Alexis Stern was sitting behind the wheel of the red Ford Fusion her parents had given her the previous year when she’d learned to drive. Robbie Olsen, the boy she’d recently started dating, was in the passenger seat. They were in the kind of high spirits unique to teenagers on summer vacation with nothing much to do and nowhere in particular to go. They were about to take a drive, maybe get some food, when Stern’s phone buzzed. It was the police. An officer with the local department told her to come down to the station immediately. She had no idea what the cops might want with her. “I was like, am I going to get arrested?” she said.

Stern had graduated from high school the month before, in Big Lake, Minnesota, a former resort town turned exurb, forty miles northwest of the Twin Cities. So far she had spent the summer visiting family, hanging out with her new boyfriend, and writing what she describes as “action-packed and brutal sci-fi fantasy fiction.” At sixteen, she’d self-published her first novel, Inner Monster, about a secret agent named Justin Redfield whose mind has been invaded by a malevolent alter ego that puts the lives of his loved ones at risk. “It isn’t until his inner demon returns that he realizes how much trouble he really is in,” the synopsis reads. “Facing issues with his girlfriend and attempting to gain control of his dark side, the tension intensifies. Being the best agent comes at a price, a price of kidnapping, torture and even death.

Article
Oceans Apart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I had been in Domoni—an ancient, ramshackle trading town on the volcanic island of Anjouan—for only a few summer days in 2018 when Onzardine Attoumane, a local English teacher, offered to show me around the medina. Already I had gotten lost several times trying to navigate the dozens of narrow, seemingly indistinguishable alleyways that zigzagged around the old town’s crumbling, lava-rock homes. But Onzardine had grown up in Domoni and was intimately familiar with its contours.

Stocky in build, with small, deep-set eyes and neatly trimmed stubble, Onzardine led me through the backstreets, our route flanked by ferns and weeds sprouting from cracks in the walls and marked by occasional piles of rubble. After a few minutes, we emerged onto a sunlit cliff offering views of the mustard-colored hills that surround the town, dotted with mango, palm, and breadfruit trees. We clambered down a trail, past scrawny goats foraging through piles of discarded plastic bottles, broken flip-flops, and corroded aluminum cans, toward a ledge where a dozen young men were waiting for the fishing boats to return to shore, gazing blankly out across the sea.

Article
Vicious Cycles·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is what I feared, that she would speak about the news . . . about how her father always said that the news exists so it can disappear, this is the point of news, whatever story, wherever it is happening. We depend on the news to disappear . . .
—Don DeLillo, “Hammer and Sickle”

What a story. What a fucking story.
—Dean Baquet, on the election of Donald Trump

a circular conversation

What is the news? That which is new. But everything is new: a flower blooms; a man hugs his daughter, not for the first time, but for the first time this time . . . That which is important and new. Important in what sense? In being consequential. And this has been measured? What? The relationship between what is covered in the news and what is consequential. Not measured. Why? Its consequence is ensured. Ensured. . . ? It’s in the news. But then who makes it news? Editors. Editors dictate consequence? Not entirely. Not entirely? It matters what people read and watch—you can’t bore them. Then boredom decides? Boredom and a sense of what’s important. But what is important? What’s in the news.

Article
The Forty-Year Rehearsal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On the evening of May 8, just after eight o’clock, Kate Valk stepped onstage and faced the audience. The little playhouse was packed with hardcore fans, theater people and artists, but Kate was performing, most of all, for one person, hidden among them, a small, fine-boned, black-clad woman, her blond-gray hair up in a clip, who smiled, laughed, and nodded along with every word, swaying to the music and mirroring the emotions of the performers while whispering into the ear of the tall, bearded fellow who sat beside her madly scribbling notes. The woman was Elizabeth LeCompte—known to all as Liz—the director of the Wooster Group, watching the first open performance of the company’s new piece, Since I Can Remember.

It had been a tense day, full of opening-night drama. Gareth Hobbs, who would be playing a leading role, had been sick in bed for days with a 103-degree fever, and he’d only arrived at the theater, still shaky, at three-thirty that afternoon. During the final closed rehearsal, performer Suzzy Roche fell on her elbow, then felt faint and had to lie prone while her colleagues fanned her and fetched ice. At one point, Erin Mullin, the stage manager as well as a performer, shouted: “We have one hour left, and we’re on page eight of fifty!” Not to mention that the piece still had no ending.

Article
Election Bias·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the spring of 2018, Tequila Johnson, an African-American administrator at Tennessee State University, led a mass voter-registration drive organized by a coalition of activist groups called the Tennessee Black Voter Project. Turnout in Tennessee regularly ranks near the bottom among U.S. states, just ahead of Texas. At the time, only 65 percent of the state’s voting-age population was registered to vote, the shortfall largely among black and low-income citizens. “The African-American community has been shut out of the process, and voter suppression has really widened that gap,” Johnson told me. “I felt I had to do something.”

The drive generated ninety thousand applications. Though large numbers of the forms were promptly rejected by election officials, allegedly because they were incomplete or contained errors, turnout surged in that year’s elections, especially in the areas around Memphis and Nashville, two of the cities specifically targeted by the registration drive. Progressive candidates and causes achieved notable successes, capturing the mayor’s office in heavily populated Shelby County as well as several seats on the county commission. In Nashville, a local measure was passed introducing a police-accountability board.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today