November 2007

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October 31, 2007
Washoe, a Chimp of Many Words, Dies at 42

Memories of Washoe (the chimp who “spoke” sign language) – but more especially about the attempts to explore the relations and differences between chimps and humans. Let’s give a few minutes to mourn her death, and to think about how her presence especially helped to make deaf persons (especially congenitally deaf persons) into fully human beings.

Child and Chimp at Zoo, photo by César Rincón

A Confession: I only saw Washoe on film – signing with and to people.

But I was a fairly constant discussant of the issues involved by the chief investigators, Allen and Beatrix (Trixie) Gardner. We had first met at a meeting with William Stokoe, the author of American Sign Language, and Professor at Gallaudet College for the Deaf in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. We continued discussions for a long time.

Some context: Sign Language was not permitted in any American schools for the deaf, until 1972 – and Bill Stokoe was the person who rounded up a number of allies to make all that happen. Deaf persons using sign language now seems commonplace: interpreters are available in many settings; most deaf kids learn and use sign language; there are courses at most universities. But this all happened because of Stokoe – the work of the Gardners with Washoe – and the accurate shifts in our thinking about the deaf. (see Oliver Sacks, “Seeing Voices” for a review.)

I had been deeply engaged with the critical exploration of language as a presumably “unique” aspect of the human, and what makes humans truly human. My own work shares the approach of Darwin’s last book: “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” and lays out the various subjects to be explored to enter human nature beyond the assumptions of language as defining us. I wrote a book (“After Metaphysics” – republished later as “Language and Human Nature”). I try to take the fact that we are bodies in interaction with others’ bodies, and more fully explore our nature. (Bill Stokoe wrote the Introduction to the second edition.) Read the rest of this entry »