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Posts Tagged ‘Herb Terrance’

I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

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