Wednesday, August 08, 2007

An Ape Types in Iowa

By GAIL COLLINS
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 9, 2007

Des Moines

“Des Moines is the most ape-literate city in the United States,” said Robert Shumaker proudly. “People come up to me on the street and start talking about bonobos.”

A bonobo is a small chimpanzee-like ape. Which you would know if you lived here.

Shumaker is the lead scientist at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, which houses seven bonobos, three orangutans and a number of researchers at a sanctuary just outside of Des Moines. The whole place has been underwritten by a wealthy Iowa businessman, Ted Townsend, to the tune of about $22 million.

The central concern here is ape-human communication. The apes seem to be able to understand quite a bit of English, and they talk by pushing symbols on a computer. The rock star of the compound is Kanzi, a 27-year-old bonobo whose mother, Matata, spent years with researchers struggling to learn eight basic symbols, without much success. One day the baby just climbed up on the computer and started communicating away, like a little Mozart bent over the keyboard.

It was a moment one of the staff members here compared to “the discovery of penicillin,” but it would actually be familiar to every middle-aged human who has wrestled helplessly with a TV remote and been rescued by a 6-year-old.

His sister Panbanisha is actually supposed to be the smartest bonobo, although she’s shy. Unlike Kanzi, she is not given to staring back at visitors and demanding, through gestures, that they provide some entertainment by chasing each other around the room.

“Can you see the swans?” asked one of the staff members, pointing to a pair of birds swimming in a lake. “Panbanisha is going to give them names.”

Not anytime soon. At the mention of the swans, Bill Fields, the senior research scientist who works with bonobos, looked pained. “They ate Kanzi’s yellow tomato plants,” he said. “They honk. They don’t care what anybody thinks. It was a shock to find out we don’t love them as much as we thought we were going to. Not. At. All.”

By “we” Fields means himself and the bonobos. The people-ape boundaries here are sometimes extremely fluid.

This has got to be one of the most interesting places in Iowa. The humans talk to the apes with welding masks over their faces to prove they aren’t cheating and sending signals. The apes’ conversations seem very much focused on things to eat, but they clearly have other concerns. Friends. Weather. Swans. Strange that in a state awash in presidential candidates, not one has ever come to visit.

Maybe they’re afraid of the theological implications. If Republicans believe it is politically dangerous to acknowledge that man descended from apes, they’d regard it as suicidal to admit that Iowa houses 10 nonhumans whose ability to remember and match symbols could win them valuable prizes on TV game shows. Kanzi, the staff members say, can also speak a few words of English. “He’ll say: ‘Rightnow,’ ” said Daniel Musgrave, a staff member. “Watermelon, pineapple, Perrier, thank you — he’s very polite.”

And what does it say about animal rights if animals can identify bottled water by brand name and have better manners than most American teenagers?

Everyone at the trust is passionately attached to the apes, and seemed horrified at the idea of doing medical research on them or treating them like ... animals. But they also feel that apes are unique. No one I talked to was willing to advocate a ban on leather or hunting.

“There’s no reasonable comparison between great apes and dogs and cats and deer,” said Shumaker.

Human-ape conversation was a very hot topic back in the late 1960s, when researchers first taught a chimpanzee named Washoe to use sign language. It lost steam once it became clear that while the apes could put together simple statements and requests, they were not prepared to have discussions about their deepest feelings, hopes and dreams. The Great Ape Trust is the only place in America where this kind of research still goes on.

“It was difficult to demonstrate how this was applicable to human welfare,” said Fields. People frequently ask him if the money wouldn’t be better used on cancer research. This is a common question about almost any science not related to deadly diseases, but not a really good one.

You don’t want every scientist in the world working on a cure for cancer. And it’s almost always a mistake to discourage the ones who want to do basic research to push further into unknown territory where their hearts lie. You can’t predict where the next great leap in knowledge will emerge. Conversing with apes is probably at least as useful as the manned space program, and definitely cheaper.

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