Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Epicurean Chimpanzee

An argument between Noam Chomsky and BF Skinner on whether language was unique to humans or not led to a truly 1970's experiment involving a chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky. As Boing Boing highlights:

Elizabeth Hess: The idea was to put an infant chimp into a human family, allow that chimp to learn language in the same way that human children might learn language, that they would absorb it naturally from their siblings. And the reason that they were using American sign language is there had been earlier studies which had shown that chimps are extremely gestural, they were able to learn American sign language whereas they don't have the same voice boxes that we have. But no chimp had been raised from infancy in a human language and taught ASL, so this was an experiment that everybody was really looking at and watching to see what would happen.

Natasha Mitchell: He even got to a point where he drank beer and smoked.

Elizabeth Hess: Yes, it was the 70s so you know it wasn't uncommon for Columbia students to be hanging around at night smoking pot, and Nim loved pot and eventually developed his own sign for give me a joint (goNZo emphasis). You know chimps have the same vices that we have. Nim started the day for his entire life with a cup of coffee and as he grew older was often grumpy if he didn't get it.

Language is bigger than humans, demonstrated by Nim, the dope fiend chimp.

UPDATE: The full transcript is fascinating. Read it.