Washoe

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.)

Stokoe and the Gardners were effectively my partners in exploring these ideas, which begins to describe humans as more than the ancient notions that we are body and mind – and that language and the mind pretty much account for the human. Before 1972, sign language was literally forbidden in deaf schools, because most thinkers thought the use of the body to communicate – was somehow “inferior” to the use of spoken (“real”) language to communicate. Sign language was thought to be lesser, to make deaf children handicapped in ways which would narrow their capabilities a great deal.

This is all rather humorous in retrospect, but it was very real in those days of considering most handicapped persons more as “freaks” than as real people. How the world (and technology) has changed since then. The first congenitally deaf person to become President of Gallaudet College got that job (I recall?) in 1995.

On the other (more academic) side of this argument, the human-as-language thinkers have won the day, so far. The Chomsky-Pinker duo – who take us right back to the ancient definitions of the human: you cannot compare humans with other primates “because” you “can’t” – continues (so far) to dominate the fields of linguistics, psychology – even much of (socio) biology and anthropology.

Even though Darwin said human language differs “quantitatively” from other primates (“Descent of Man”), Chomsky and biologists like K. Lorenz and E.O. Wilson maintain that you cannot compare the language of humans, chimps, or other species. (Plato and Aristotle still reign, perhaps especially with the rise of neurolinguistics and the sense that the brain is pretty much “prewired.”)

Washoe got “caught” in these philosophical rantings, following a period of study of the human body. The human body, face-work, bodily interactions – we all got “caught” in the Chomskyan “revolution” which might be abating…soon.

Most sadly in remembering the work of the Gardners with Washoe (Roger Fouts – who with Deborah Fouts, took care of Washoe till her death – was their primary student) – is that other chimps whom the Gardners also taught sign language, were “taken away” from their tutelage, and “used” for other forms of “research” – to be “sacrificed” when their “usefulness” was past. Fortunately Washoe and her family survived.

Their work would and should have directed us to examine the human more in terms of our bodily interactions (my teacher, Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, began this with his study of “Kinesics”). But that all faded, as the ancient “hype” of language-as-humanly-unique shifted the study of the human from observation of self and others, to the sense that the Cartesian belief that “I think therefore I am,” and stopped us from examining ourselves and others in the complexities of our (bodily being…with others).

Some of us do persist, and are sensing the intellectual political winds to be shifting back to self-and-other observation, to note with feminist Elaine Morgan, that “The heart-stopping thing about the new-born is that, from minute one, there is somebody there. Anyone who bends over the cot and gazes at it is being gazed back at.” We humans love faces; our hands and bodies are much more interesting and complicated than we have noted – having been wooed into attributing what is essentially human to the mind and language.

Some psychologists are beginning or continuing to study human development in the context of (“Attachment Theory” – see Alan Fogel “Developing through Relationships”), using the line of thought which flows from Pragmatist Philosophers G.H. Mead, and John Dewey, and the works of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students: – my intellectual forbearers. Perhaps in these global moments, we can include all peoples (and life) into our examination of the human and our cousins.

So: Washoe, we loved you, your knowledge, and the ideas which the Gardners pursued, to help us expand our ideas (and politics) of the deaf and other handicapped. We also use this occasion to remember William Stokoe and Beatrix Gardner. To life! – and to remember your contributions to a deeper-broader appreciation of our lives.

  • Although it may be as much of a “compliment” as American Sign is ever going to get from the lowest common denominator of academic common sense, it’s still possible to wonder if promotion into the category of “human language” actually underestimates the flow of information involved in the “language” of the deaf.

    Every time I ask my deaf friends to translate what just happened in a few seconds of signing, I get a couple of (written) paragraphs of emotional shading, humorous asides, histories of relationships, and an echo of distant connections that really can’t be translated.

    It’s probably possible to measure the byte-rate of signing, and if it turns out to be an order of magnitude greater than the byte-rate of ordinary human speech, as I suspect it would, maybe we could stop treating “language” as a ne plus ultra of interpersonal exchange, and somehow dream up a better compliment for the language of the deaf than a comparison with our own meager capacities.

  • Although it may be as much of a “compliment” as American Sign is ever going to get from the lowest common denominator of academic common sense, it’s still possible to wonder if promotion into the category of “human language” actually underestimates the flow of information involved in the “language” of the deaf.

    Every time I ask my deaf friends to translate what just happened in a few seconds of signing, I get a couple of (written) paragraphs of emotional shading, humorous asides, histories of relationships, and an echo of distant connections that really can’t be translated.

    It’s probably possible to measure the byte-rate of signing, and if it turns out to be an order of magnitude greater than the byte-rate of ordinary human speech, as I suspect it would, maybe we could stop treating “language” as a ne plus ultra of interpersonal exchange, and somehow dream up a better compliment for the language of the deaf than a comparison with our own meager capacities.