IF APES CAN TALK, where does that leave us?

Is man unique, or isn't he? Copernicus showed that earth is not the center of the solar system, and Darwin jolted Adam. But philosophers and humanists from Aristotle to Bronowski continually reassert man's uniqueness and emphasize language as our critical invention. Anthropocentrists see a chasm separting godlike man, reasoning and articulate, from incoherent brutes. This book questions that view and suggests that in our preoccupation with possible extraterrestrial life, we may be overlooking some impressive nonhumans here at home.

Man's closest animal relatives are the other primates. Of these, we most resemble gorillas and chimpanzees. Biochemists have shown that despite differences in physical appearance, the chimpanzees and man have virtually identical genes, and there is rumor of attempts by European scientists to inseminate artifically a female chimp with human semen. It's obvious that chimps are intelligent and trainable -- zoos, circuses, and vaudeville have exploited them for decades. But it a chimp can roller-skate or ride a bicycle, why doesn't it talk? This book examines that question, reviewing 20 years of effort at man-ape communication.

In the 1950s, Keith and Cathy Hayes made the most determined and patient effort. For six years they worked round the clock with a home-reared chimp, who finally managed a barely intelligible "mama," "papa," "up" an "cup." The Hayes abandoned their effort, and the apes seemed fated to remain "dumb" -- considered both mute and relatively stupid.

Ten years ago an article in Science magazine changed all that. Two Nevada psychologists, Beatrice and R. Allen Gardner, reported their results with Washoe, a young female chimp who had mastered 132 words of American Sign Language, ASL, the language of the deaf. The Gardners reasoned that although chimps lack the vocal apparatus for human speech, there is no physical reason they cannot master gestures. Since then, Washoe has continued to expand her vocabulary and has even taught signs to other chimpanzees. Washoe's feats have been duplicated by other chimps, and with Koko, a female gorilla. Other chimps have been taught to communicate using colored shapes, and Lana, as part of an experiment in Georgia, has learned to "chatter" with a sophisticated computer terminal.

Collectively, the results are astonishing. Washoe has learned several hundred signs based of stringent criteria of acquistion. She began combining signs after only 10 months of training when she was two years old, and like human children, gradually increased the length of her signed communications. The Gardners then worked with two chimpanzees who were immersed in sign language from birth and were taught by fluent signers including deaf persons. Moja and Pili began to sign in their third month. Both apes and children occasionally invent signs -- Washoe invented a sign for bib and Koko invented signs for "stethoscope," "bite," "tickle" and "note." And like human children, apes also engage in babbling and self-signing.

Several apes can apparently lie -- a purposeful use of displacement, communicating about invisible objects or past events. They can also be sneaky: Lana knows she has been forbidden to go into certain areas, but will disobey, trying to hide, signing to herself "quiet, quiet" as she tiptoes around. Sarah has also mastered the conditional, understanding the following exchange: "If Sarah take apple -- then Mary [the trainer] give chocolate Sarah; if Sarah take banana -- then Mary no give chocolate Sarah." Since the ape prefers banana to apple, her natural inclination would be to seize the banana. But if she likes banana, she loves chocolate. So she has deduced the consequences of her action, and acted accordingly -- in her own best (chocolate) interests.

The "pongists," as Desmond calls those psychologists who have trained the apes, have not gone unchallenged. Some call the ape actions imitative, more than parroting but far from human language. Some behaviorists ask if the apes have done more than learn an elaborate trick. If Lana, for example, punches five computer keys and this is then translated as "Please machine give banana period," is this more meaningful than Skinner training a pigeon to peck a series of five keys to obtain a similar food-reward? There is also the influence of the trainer. The apes may be like "Clever Hans, the calculating horse," who was totally ignorant of mathematics but very sensitive to unconscious clues given by its trainer. This would parallel ape communication in the wild -- a complex interplay of movement, eye contact, gesture and vocalization, the meaning of which can be understood only in a specific situation. Desmond himself questions the anecdotal nature of some of the reports, and the selection of favorable results and omission of unfavorable responses. To counter this kind of charge, the researchers have devised increasingly rigorous experiments, and Desmond is satisfied in the end that purposeful use of symbols and gestures to communicate has been established.

Syntax remains a problem. Can an ape create a question? A group at Columbia "spent five years and exhausted 100 sign-language trainers only to obtain an equivocal answer . . . Can Nim distinguish 'grape eat Nim' (one of his commoner expressions) from 'Nim eat grape' -- well, if he can, he apparently does not bother to exploit this useful distinction." And is it language? In some ways, the experimenters are caught in a no-win situation. They are challenged by linguists who question whether the "talking" apes "have" language, yet fail to agree on what language is. For Noam Chomsky, man alone has an innate language protential; the "deep structures" of universal grammar are embedded in human neocortical wiring. Desmond says "Some linguists view comparative studies of language in other species with disdain rather than welcoming the input from an area that they have ignored. . . . Linguists have a prejudice toward the auditory as the only mode in which language can be expressed. . . . But it matters little through which sense I realize that in the dark I have blundered into a pigsty . . . Not only is it unnecessary to prove that apes 'have' human language, it is practically an impossibility."

Desmond believes that some of the controversy had developed because we are asking the wrong questions. Forever egocentric, man sees himself as the measure of all things, and in assessing ape intelligence and linguistic ability, ambiguous signs are translated into the human equivalent. But how can we know that the gestures interpreted as sorry or funny have a similar meaning for the ape? Language is preeminently a social activity, and it is wrong, says Desmond, to assign a human meaning in the ape context. Ultimately, he says, the best use of the experimentation may be to give us a clearer insight into ape mentality -- without judging them.

Desmond, a British science historian and paleontologist (author of The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs ) writes with wit and vigor. His book is an entertaining look at a fascinating aspect of animal intelligence. In asking provocative questions about the ability of the ape brain to learn language, he may in fact be asking questions about ourselves, and man's relation to other species.