Primates and Primatologists
Note: This is a Vlog Post. The text comes from the video embedded below. It is in a spoken register of English.
I have a lot of comments on my videos, especially the videos of Bow. And a lot of them are very positive. And most of them are about — you know — how cute he is, and how wonderful it is to work with him, and how somebody else might like to experience that. But I also receive some negative comments, and if they’re really nasty I delete them, but I don’t delete every critical comment. And recently I had one that I think needs addressing.
It was basically: “You are not a real primatologist. And you are not engaged in an official study.” You know, with any university or any other official place, and I don’t remember what the rest of it was.
Okay, so first of all let’s address what a “real” primatologist is. A real primatologist is a scientist who studies primates — usually nonhuman primates, but lately the primatologists that I know have been forced to study humans, because those are the only primates who are available to study.
The primatological studies happen in a number of disciplines, which include biology, psychology, anthropology and, in my case, linguistics. So I have a PhD in linguistics from Rice University in Houston. And my PhD is about as “official” as it gets. But you’re right. I am not engaged in an “officially” sanctioned study. And neither is anyone else. [When it comes to ape language studies.]
So what’s happened is that there has been a political movement that said that humans and apes, or other nonhuman primates, should not interact with one another. The kind of primatological studies that are now being allowed to take place, usually not on university campuses, because the great apes have been pretty much banned from university campuses, but at other institutions such a zoos and other research facilities, they are studies involving cognition, studies involving biology. Oftentimes, if it’s anything resembling language, it is computer mediated. And the researchers are not allowed to form a relationship to the research subject.
For some things, that’s fine. If you’re just giving them intelligence tests, if you’re just trying to see if they can solve a problem, even a linguistic problem, in a very formal way, then, yes, it’s fine not to have a relationship. But if you want to see whether they can develop language — not become linguists and solve a linguistic problem in a very abstract way — but develop language for the purposes of communication, then you need to replicate the situation that is available to humans when they acquire language.
So if you take a child and separate the child out from society, from other people, make sure that all the child’s needs are met, and go in there with a mask to feed the child, and you treat the child as if it were some kind of biological object, not a person, and you don’t talk to the child, and you don’t allow the child any means to talk to you, then that child will not develop language. It’s true for humans, and there’s no reason to suppose that it’s not true for chimpanzees , [bonobos], gorillas, orangutans and lower order primates.
So, if your particular interest is language, and mine is, it’s important to have that relationship. And right now no official study is doing that! And those people who used to have official studies — and there are people, and I’m following in their footsteps — have been forced to leave the academic world in order to pursue these things, and often they are forced out of their institutions, and they lose custody of their apes, because they are not allowed to own them, and all of this is going in a certain direction. And it’s not a direction that will ever allow us to test the hypothesis that other apes are capable of language.
So while this is not an official study, this is a study that is very important to the development of science. And believe me, science is not an “official” thing. It never was, and it never will be!