On December 30, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature about the most important obituaries of 2007. It was gratifying, yet still sad, to see that a joint obituatry for Alex the parrot and Washoe the chimp was included in the list. Alex and Washoe (“the Communicators,” as described by the NYT) were both pioneering participants in the original animal “language” studies, which sought to test the limits of human-animal communication. Irene Pepperberg, trainer, colleague, and friend of Alex, continues her avian communication studies at Brandeis University, and if you would like to know more about her work, I’ve written extensively on them here. Washoe was raised from a infant chimp by a psychologist couple, the Gardners, who taught Washoe sign language. By Washoe’s death (by natural causes), she had largely transferred her sign language knowledge to her child. This was the first known occurance of animal-animal transference of human communication.
The moment with Washoe that still resonates most is one that occurred outside the laboratory, when she happened to notice a swan adrift on a nearby lake. She turned to her caretakers and signed “water,” then “bird”: perhaps the first documented incident of another creature freely assigning our words to an observed phenomenon. It was, the Harvard psychologist Roger Brown noted at the time, “like getting an S O S from outer space.”
They were not unusually gifted members of their respective species, Washoe and Alex. But armed with our words, they opened our minds, making us aware of the pervasive and protean nature of the linguistic impulse across species. Of the many tales they told us, the most universal tells of an early ancestor of our own, standing hundreds of thousands of years ago on a lakeshore somewhere, seeing a large winged creature drift by and signing or saying outright, in whatever language it might have been: “water,” then “bird.”
Hat tip Abel for the obit link.