There is a popular misconception that science is an orderly enterprise, one in which the soundest empirical designs are funded, the data systematically gathered and analyzed, then impartially interpreted, ultimately revealing tidy answers to intelligent questions. Anyone who shares this misconception would do well to read Eugene Linden's "Silent Partners," an entertaining, if at times exasperating, account of the ape sign language experiments that flourished during the 1970s. It is a story about the vicissitudes of scientific funding, the inexactness of scientific observation and interpretation and -- most compelling -- the human dimension of the entire enterprise.
Linden would seem to be a good choice to provide perspective on this subject. He has been an occasional observer of several language experiments since 1972, when he made his first visit to the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma to research his earlier book, "Apes, Men, and Language.", He has recently done a lot of additional work to bring himself up to date on the circumstances of the most famous of the apes -- the chimpanzees Washoe, Nim, Lucy and Ally and the gorilla Koko -- now that the language work has fallen into scientific disfavor.
Linder is not concerned here with weighing the evidence for and against the apes' linguistic abilities -- a mass of evidence that, he concedes, remains equivocal even after nearly two decades of work. He is concerned instead with the ultimate disposition of apes who achieved a certain measure of celebrity a decade ago; he takes a long view of the declining interest in ape language, arguing -- unconvincingly, it turns out -- that the recent travels of these five animals should be taken as symbolic of an important cultural shift, a fundamental reordering of our society's values.
Linden's case is unconvincing for two reasons. First, the fates of the five apes in question do not seem all that unhappy. The most unfortunate were Nim and Ally, who, when funding dried up, were shipped off to a medical laboratory for experimental testing of hepatitis vaccines. But public furor spared them that fate; Ally was put into stud service and Nim was sent to Texas for what Linden mysteriously calls a "dubious retirement."
Of the other apes, Koko and Washoe continue in linguistic experiments, although their human mentors -- Penny Patterson and Roger Fouts, respectively -- have bunkered themselves in the wake of scientific criticism. And Lucy's caretaker, Janice Carter, has taken Lucy to the forests of Gambia, where she is being taught to live as a natural chimp.
Second, Linden seems to suggest that it is society that has given up on ape language (and, by implication, on the apes themselves), when by his own account it is the researchers who gave up -- by abandoning rigorous research in favor of a personal relationship with the ape, by withdrawing from academe and refusing to publish, or by concluding that the apes were capable of no more than mimicry. The ape language project, by Linden's own description, was the victim of sloppy science more than anything else, yet he seems determined to place the blame elsewhere.
The person most to blame, in Linden's view, is Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University psychologist and the villain in this study. Linden holds him personally responsible for sabotaging ape language work by concluding publicly that apes merely move their hands randomly until they get what they want. That is not a welcome conclusion to someone like Linden, who believes that apes possess all sorts of human qualities -- logic, wonder, pride. His personal resentment of Terrace is undisguised.
Biases such as this (and there are many more) seriously flaw "Silent Partners," and readers should keep them constantly in mind. But the book is interesting and valuable despite its biases, offering a rare look at the roles that human passion and personality play in the conduct of science.