Thursday, August 21, 2014

Trouble on the Planet of the Apes

Some of the most fascinating experiments in primatology have been the attempts to teach apes human languages. Jane C Hu takes a look and finds some troubling details. One of the problems is that the people crazy enough to dedicate their lives to an ape for decades can't really be trusted to be objective observers.

Last week, people around the world mourned the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. According to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, we were not the only primates mourning. A press release from the foundation announced that Koko the gorilla—the main subject of its research on ape language ability, capable in sign language and a celebrity in her own right—“was quiet and looked very thoughtful” when she heard about Williams’ death, and later became “somber” as the news sank in. Williams, described in the press release as one of Koko’s “closest friends,” spent an afternoon with the gorilla in 2001. The foundation released a video showing the two laughing and tickling one another. At one point, Koko lifts up Williams’ shirt to touch his bare chest. In another scene, Koko steals Williams’ glasses and wears them around her trailer.

But how seriously should we take claims that Koko understood? Hu looks behind the curtain and sees some reasons for doubt.

The world Hu looks at is infested with backbiting, obsessive secrecy, and dubious claims about the ape's actual cognitive abilities. There have always been skeptics about the claims made by the researcher/foster parents of the apes, and the pervasive non-disclosure agreements required of those who work with the apes do absolutely nothing to quell those doubts, but the disclosure of Hu's informants seem mostly to be concerned with whether or not the apes are being properly fed and cared for.

The experiments have taught us a lot about ape cognition, and its limitations, but we are left with doubts about many of the claims as well as about the ethics of such experiments.