Today I rode with my former colleague to Central WA Univ. to see the sign language using chimp Washoe and her relatives.
I went along as the resident chimp expert and was relieved to see the names of several former students on the roster. In fact, more than half of them were my students. Despite speaking in front of an audience for a living, I still get social anxiety around those I don't know. For some reason when I'm teaching my tendency to be reserved and introverted totally dissipates. I become loquacious. My friends tease me about being completely quiet for hours at parties until I finally deliver an Emancipation Proclamation. Students don't believe I'm shy, but I am. It's amusing how many professors are. I think it goes with the territory of being a bookworm turned professor. Anyhow, aside from being shy and uncertain about socializing with students as their quasi-equal, I was really looking forward to meeting Washoe and hearing about Roger Fouts and his students' work with the chimps. But, right before Yakima, our van blew out a tire. We ended up coming right back.
It was a let down for all except the students who were at least 21 and who could buy wine at the winery we happened to stop near. See, this area of southcentral WA is serious wine country. In fact, Walla Walla was Sunset magazine's wine destination of the year for 2005. There are at least a dozen wine tasting rooms just within walking distance of my house alone.
Back to the van - I actually scored a seat by myself so I used the time to read some of Adapting Minds by David Buller. It's a critique of evolutionary psychology - the paradigm - that got a lot of attention when it was published last year. So far, he has done a great job of reviewing some of the core ideas of evolutionary biology (especially frequency dependent selection, conditional strategies, developmental plasticity, etc.) and is now explaining the modularity of mind concept developed by Cosmides and Tooby. It's well-written and devoid of the vitriol present in so many other EP criticisms that dismiss it on political rather than scientific grounds (see for reference much of the book Evolution, Gender, and Rape). I like to keep up with what the other side thinks.
A few months ago on a job interview I was asked if I had read the book. I hadn't. But neither had the person asking - and she really should have too. So, I figure I should use my enforced time-off from teaching to gain some more perspective on my field. Thus far, it is interesting and I will keep reading it.
But back to Washoe - there's a lot to say about her and her family. For a primer, check out the book Next of Kin by Roger Fouts. Right now I'm in the process of transfering my black and white Washoe clips from VHS to my digital video camera to DVD (read: worth-it pain-in-the-butt). My favorite parts are Washoe putting three fingers up to her ear to name herself, identifying things she doesn't like as "black," and her signing "hurry, open" repeatedly to get her people to open a door.
There's a great story about "black" in the Fouts book. When the young Washoe first saw other chimps (she was raised entirely by humans as part of the cross-fostering technique), she called them "black bugs." Woah!
There you have it - evidence of in-out group mentality in a chimp. Question is - did she pick this up from her human environment or is it part of some shared hominoid evolutionary makeup?
Whichever way, I agree with E.O. Wilson (father of sociobiology) who said something like this:
As long as we draw distinctions between us and them, there is little hope for global harmony.
Every time I hear that Amajaniahdhihad (deliberate misspelling here) talk about how his nuke plan is for peaceful purposes, I think about his view of anyone who is Jewish. Why can't we all focus on our similarities and downplay our differences?
I think this about most things in life - including the debate about whether chimps understand language. From an academic perspective it creates an opportunity to practice critical thinking, but at the end of the day, I think it's more important to accept that humans and chimps are really quite similar.