am 10. April 1999
This is one of the best books I have ever read. I could hardly put it down. It is the autobiographical story of a graduate student who wanted to be a clinical psychologist working with children, but who didn't have either the grades or the money to get into a first-tier Ph.D. program. His advisor suggested that he apply to the University of Nevada, where he was admitted to the department of experimental psychology, a far cry from clinical. For money, they offered him a half-time assistantship, working for Allen and Beatrix Gardner, researchers who were trying to teach a chimpanzee to talk. His interview with Allen Gardner did not go well and he was sure he wasn't going to get the job, but after the interview ended he was asked if he would like to see the chimp.
"As we approached the fenced-in nursery school, I saw two adults playing with a child in the shade of a tree. At least I thought it was a child. When the child saw us coming she leapt up and began hooting. Then she began sprinting in our direction--on all fours. We were only a few yards from the four-foot-high fence now. Washoe continued to speed toward us and, without breaking stride, vaulted over the fence and sprang from the top rail. What happened next amazes me to this day. Washoe did not jump onto Allen Gardner as I had expected. She leapt into my arms."
He got the job. He didn't know anything about chimpanzees, especially about changing diapers on an infant chimp, and he didn't know anything about American Sign Language, but he learned fast. For the next several years he was part of a project to teach ASL to Washoe and to demonstrate that a nonhuman animal could learn a natural, human language. They didn't treat Washoe the way animals are usually treated by researchers. They raised her in a human family situation and treated her as a human child. They spoke no English in her presence--only ASL. They wanted to see if she would learn it the way a child learns language. She did, and in the process challenged the almost unanimous conceptions of scientists, linguists and philosophers about the uniqueness of language in humans.
The Washoe project came to an end about the same time as Fouts was finishing his dissertation. The Gardners had arranged to send Washoe to the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. They asked Fouts to go along to take care of her. So for the second time he had Washoe to thank for getting him a job. But the situation in Oklahoma was not a happy one. For the first time in his life Fouts was introduced to the cruel conditions to which animals are routinely subjected in animal research and he found himself in the situation of protector of Washoe who he had always treated as a human child. Unfortunately, he was a young, inexperienced Ph.D. up against a powerful professor with a wide reputation. For the next 10 years or so he would have to use all his wits to survive and to protect the chimps under his care. He wasn't always able to succeed.
While in Oklahoma, Fouts came in contact with an autistic child and his work with Washoe led him to a remarkable discovery. He realized that the child might not be able to coordinate his auditory experience with his visual experience and that might be why he couldn't communicate with others. So Fouts tried teaching sign language to the autistic child and in a couple of months the child was communicating with others for the first time in his life. His behavior also changed. He stopped screaming and rocking and started making eye contact with people. More remarkably, a few weeks after he started learning ASL, he started to speak in English. This led Fouts to begin theorizing about the origins of language, which is discussed at some length in this book.
The situation in Oklahoma got worse and worse for the chimpanzees and Fouts began seeking an escape. Eventually he found a sanctuary in Central Washington University and built a home for Washoe and other chimps there--the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, where the chimps live free from human domination. Graduate students who work with them can do so only if the chimps agree. (Remember, I am talking about talking chimpanzees here!) Fouts says that sometimes a graduate student will complain that he can't get the chimps to cooperate in a study and Fouts just says "Too bad. Think up a study that's more fun."
As you might have guessed, Fouts became an animal rights activist. To him, his wife and his children, who grew up with Washoe, Washoe has always been considered a person. He says "Of all the people who visit Washoe's family, deaf children are the first to recognize the chimpanzee as our next of kin. To see a deaf child, who struggles daily to be understood by fellow humans, talking animatedly in sign with a chimpanzee is to recognize the absurdity of the age-old distinction between 'thinking human' and 'dumb animal'. When deaf children look at Washoe, they don't see an animal. They see a person. It is my fondest hope that, one day, every scientist will see as clearly."
Teaching a chimp to use a natural language, bringing an autistic child out of his isolation, and fighting for animal rights are not Fouts only remarkable achievements. He also demonstrated that an animal who used ASL would also teach it to her child. Washoe taught Loulis to speak.
I remember first hearing about Washoe back in the early 70s, I think, but reading a popular science magazine article about her is nothing like reading this first hand account. As the introduction by Jane Goodall says, this book "has all the elements of a truly great novel--adventure, heartbreak, the stuggle against evil, courage, and, of course, love."