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Origins of Creativity
Duane Rumbaugh

Duane Rumbaugh

      . . . comparative psychologist. In Intelligence of Apes and Other Rational Beings, Dr. Rumbaugh and his co-author present conclusions from a lifetime learning from primates. Dr. Rumbaugh is co-founder (with Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh) and recent director of the Language Research Center at Georgia State University, where he is Regents Professor emeritus in the Departments of Psychology and Biology. Dr. Rumbaugh began his research into the nature of the learning processes of primates in 1958 and in 1971 initiated the LANA Chimpanzee Language Project. He also pioneered the development of computer-monitored keyboards to study language acquisition among primates.

Excerpts3:05 secs

Experience is where the action is as young brains develop competence -- whether human or ape -- according to renowned comparative psychologist, Duane Rumbaugh. Based on his lifetime of research, he’s convinced that the developmental stages in which the young human and non-human primates learn are neither automatic nor age-dictated, but must also factor in experience.

Dr. Rumbaugh is one of the pioneers in comparing how various primates, including humans, learn. He’s been probing the nature of primate learning since the 1950s, initiated the pace-setting LANA Chimpanzee Language Project in 1971 and led the development of computer-monitored keyboards.

Animal researchers who study learning and performance have amassed a tremendous amount of understanding, good science, knowledge and technique, Dr. Rumbaugh says. All of it, he believes, can be applied to the benefit of human children and adults as well as to a better understanding of the rest of the creatures with whom we share the planet, especially other primates.

Our brains -- human and non-human primates alike -- are hungry for consistent patterns of things in our experiences, according to Dr. Rumbaugh. We’re on the lookout for things that reliably are paired together, that follow each other. We use this pairing to make sense of our experiences, to structure our environment.  He says there is an organization of learning that results in what he calls “emergent” behaviors -- behaviors that are not fixed, not predictable and not the product of specific reinforced histories.

Dr. Rumbaugh’s story for how our great big brains evolved and why they evolved the way they did begins when our forbearers left the forests and walked (“bipedally”) onto the savanna. Once on the savanna, Dr. Rumbaugh believes, opportunities for selection of our large brains presented themselves -- those brains helped the organism (human primates) integrate a complex environment. (In modern non-human primates, Dr. Rumbaugh believes that the powerful influence of the environment in shaping their brains also helps account for how differently apes behave in the field and in the laboratory.)

Here’s one practical application of what Dr. Rumbaugh’s research teaches us. Suppose you want to bring forth the very best learning that the primate can manage in a given situation. Where to begin? Control is the name of the game, Dr. Rumbaugh says. But if you want to control efforts effectively, he says, the individual has to be able to predict what’s going to happen.  So control and prediction go hand in hand. And, strikingly, Dr. Rumbaugh’s research shows that this finding even applies to our less richly brain-endowed cousins, the modest rhesus monkey. It’s all in the family.

Dr. Rumbaugh keenly hopes that appreciating the intelligence of apes and other rational beings will spur us on to protect them and to conserve their much threatened environments, whether our fellow sentient beings live in rain forests or oceans or scientific laboratories. He wants us to want them to do well. Because it may be that the wellbeing of ALL intelligent beings rides on ability of just one of them being rational. Us.

[This Program was recorded November 13, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Duane Rumbaugh tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell that Descartes’ ideas are still influential but wrong. Primate central nervous systems, Dr. Rumbaugh says, are hungry to integrate and reorganize experiences and perceptions creatively and also are selected to do so.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:49 secs

Conversation 2

The effects of the contexts in which research is done are considered. Dr. Rumbaugh insists that if one gives an animal a very simple program and stop there, the animal is going to appear to be stupid.  But if one allows the animal to show what it’s learned, he says, surprise is possible. He gives examples. He argues strongly for sentience and intelligence in non-human animals. Dr. Rumbaugh offers an example of animals’ ability to manifest intelligence and creativity and stories of scientists rejecting data that does not fit a given theory.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:45 sec

Conversation 3

Dr. Rumbaugh shows how important work with other species can be in helping to understand the needs of humans, using the famous Harry Harlow “pit of despair” studies. The overwhelming similarities between humans, chimpanzees and bonobos are showcased with a poignant story about Panzee, a troglodytes chimpanzee, and a funny story about Kanzi, a bonobo.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:14 secs

Conversation 4

B.F. Skinner still figures prominently in psychology, Dr. Rumbaugh assures us. He tells of reanalyzing the learning process and concluding that the concept of reinforcement comes up short, then expands. Our primate brains are hungry for consistent patterns of things in our experience that are paired together, Dr. Rumbaugh believes. He describes an organization of learning that results in “emergent behaviors” which are not fixed, predictable or the product of specific reinforcement histories. He elaborates on emergents’ two major classifications. Experience, Dr. Rumbaugh insists, is critical in the development of competence in the brains of young apes and young humans.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:02 sec

Conversation 5

Dr. Rumbaugh offers his own “Just So” story about the evolutionary origins of the human brain. He is confident it was selected to help the bipedal organism on the savanna integrate its complex environment, with large brains selected through learning and the creative processes of emergent operations -- the brain putting things together. Prediction and control are vital to primate behavior, Dr. Rumbaugh says, offering examples of how differently animals, including humans, solve the prediction/control problems in their lives. He argues for an urgent need for humans to use our rational capabilities in the face of devastating problems we are creating for ourselves and other species on the planet.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:40 secs

Conversation 6

Control is the name of the game for bringing forth the very best in non-human and human primates, Dr. Rumbaugh says, illustrating with a rhesus monkey experiment.  He summarizes the great potential to learn about human children and adults from the work of animal researchers who study learning and performance.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:29 sec


Thank you, Dr. Duane Rumbaugh, for keeping us posted on your important work over the years. You have vastly expanded our horizons. And the assembled and various Great Apes at the Language Research Center (LRC) have greatly enhanced the stories we delight in sharing.

We have regularly enjoyed visits to the Georgia State UniversityLanguage Research Center (LRC). We thank Dr. Rumbaugh, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and their colleagues for
their on-going hospitality.

We also thank Georgia State’s President Carl Patton for initially introducing us to the work of Drs. Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh and that of the LRC.

It is a pleasure-beyond-words to be acquainted with others members of the Great Ape family, of which we humans are a part. We are honored to count Kanzi, Panbanisha, Nyota, Nathan, Matata, P-Suke and other bonobos (Pan paniscus); Lana, Sherman, Panzee, Mercury and other chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ); and Mari, the beautiful armless orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) among our friends. For that, we are deeply grateful to Drs. Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh and their colleagues (Homo sapien). Exuberant pant-hoots to you all.

Related Links:
Intelligence of Apes and Other Rational Beings by Duane M. Rumbaugh and David A. Washburn is published by Yale University Press.
You can learn more about many of the primates with whom Dr. Rumbaugh and his colleagues have worked --bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans -- at Georgia State University’s language Research Center website. Additional information is available at the the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary website.

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