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a Talk on the Wild Side
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Sue Savage-Rumbaugh & Nyota

      . . . is an Professor of Biology at Georgia State University, and a leading ape-language researcher. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh is author with Roger Lewin of Kanzi, The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Nyota was born in the Spring of 1998. He is just over a year old in this picture.

Edited Excerpts:  3:29

With luminous big brown eyes and a winning smile, the lovely lady looks like 'Lucy,' our oldest human ancestor. But she's not. She's Panbanisha, a Bonobo chimpanzee who's learned English from Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.

Savage-Rumbaugh and her research associates study primates and language at Georgia State University's Language Research Center (LRC) in Atlanta, Georgia. Panbanisha and her famous half-brother Kanzi interact with scientists -- in English. Because chimpanzee vocal chords don't create humans' sounds, the Bonobos use lexigrams on a computer-based keyboard. In this wide-ranging conversation, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh introduces us to Bonobos and to the work she and her LRC colleagues are doing which also helps retarded and language-impaired human children.

Savage-Rumbaugh's on-going primate studies research stirs controversy. "If we restrict ourselves to requiring other primates to think like humans do, we won't learn about them or ourselves. Bonobos are not object-oriented like humans. We must approach interactions and relationships with and between Bonobos the way we approach any other culture we do not understand...before it's too late," Bonobos are faced with extinction, hunted as meat in the one place on earth they are found in the wild -- the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

Finding herself in the thick of battles raging around the role and importance of "language," Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh focuses on her work. "Language is the home of the mind. It's humankind's tool. We apply it to everything,. But research is bound by the current constraints of our science. Traditional scientific approaches do not work when studying relationships. No interaction ever repeats itself, not between humans and chimpanzees, not between two humans.

"We haven't begun to study how language functions as a social regulator, how language establishes rules for social interaction. In the wild, Bonobos live in large social groups. Their social/sexual behavior is human-like. They have something like language. We must open our hearts and minds, search for joint interpretations, make sense from joint communications as a different way of processing. We must ask different, complicated questions. The answers have profound social and political implications for both species."

Conversation 1

Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh describes how her ape-language research work with chimpanzees and bonobos (human's closest primate relatives whose DNA is 99% identical to humans) started with an early interest in studying human aggression and learning. Her work now is driven by a fascination with how "mind" develops . She recalls the process that led her to change her own mind about whether or not animals "think." Her conclusions have put her at the center of considerable scientific controversy, which she describes.


Conversation 2

Based in her twenty-five years living with and studying chimpanzees and bonobos, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh offers thoughtful scientific and common sense responses to fundamental issues facing the sciences. She suggests approaching apes as if they were "another culture" in order to formulate scientific questions which can be tested. This would raise the current level of discourse to "science," above the "ad hominum" level of attacks she has experienced. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh describes how she and her colleagues worked with bonobos who now communicate with researchers in English (the bonobos use "lexigrams" on a keyboard since their vocal chords do not work like human ones.) Her conclusions challenge a host of assumptions which have, until recently, held center court among linguists.



Conversation 3

Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh describes how bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha learned to communicate with scientists. Early results were poor. "At first, we did not speak to them as though they understood." Then there were dramatic changes. "When we learned to speak to them from an early age as though they understand, they DO." Both age and expectations are vital. She compares the differences and similarities of teaching language to humans and to bonobos. "Language is the home of the mind" she insists, then tells how science has been slow to put "words" and "communication" together into "relationships." She describes ways of processing information so that each culture -- human and bonobo -- can share a joint interpretation. She then describes the dramatic impact her approach with bonobos has had on work other researchers and practitioners have done with retarded human children.


Conversation 4

Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh continues talking about the similarity of results between work with retarded human children and bonobos acquiring language, spelling out a new sense of responsibility toward apes who have acquired language. She eloquently describes the potential richness of communication available through the door opened by the bonobos' ability to understand and respond using human English. She elaborates on the importance of bonobos' "body language," suggesting human language is "object oriented" and that science has not yet begun to study language as a social regulator. "We're bound by the current constraints of our science. We must open our hearts and our minds, ask complicated questions. ĘThe answers may have very strong social and political implications." Meanwhile, Bonobos' very existence is threatened. Extinction is predicted with 10 to 20 years unless immediate steps are taken. Bonobos are only found in the wild in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire) where they are currently hunted as meat. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh describes urgently needed conservation and education requirements. She sets the context for why the survival of bonobos is also critical to learning about ourselves as humans.



Conversation 5

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh shares the strong feelings of kinship Paula Gordon describes feeling on meeting Panbanisha and Kanzi. "There's no mistaking the facial expressions. THAT kind of kinship one feels ONLY with bonobos!" declares Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh.


Kanzi (right) & Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh at the keyboard. There are now almost 400 lexigrams on the keyboard which Kanzi and Panbanisha use to communicate with the staff at the Georgia State University Language Research Center.

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