So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Next of Kin: My Conversations With Chimpanzees, by Roger Fouts, with Stephen Tukel Mills

Next of kin is one of the books I quote frequently, and it's also one of the books everyone should read. But the reason why I quote it is not the reason why everyone should read it, and the reason why everyone should read it is not necessarily the reason why you should.

Confused? Sorry; let me back up.

Next of kin is a memoir by the long-time leader of one of the ape language projects. In case you have not heard of these projects, there have been several attempts to teach either language or aspects of language to great apes. Vocal language projects have failed, because non-human apes do not have conscious control of their vocal tracts; all their sounds are emotional, like our laughs, curses, and sighs. But members of all four great ape species have been able to learn sign languages or ideogram systems. Whether these apes count as using language as such has been debated, but they do use signs and symbols to communicate. Signing apes are not performing tricks.

The language studies generally begin with very young apes, in part because adult apes are very dangerous animals and are consequently rarely used for much. You can see this in entertainment; the chimpanzees you see on TV and on greeting cards almost always have pink skin, a mark of childhood in their kind. Many of the studies either closed down as their subjects grew up, or ceased attracting media attention as national interest shifted. In the decades since, the apes have grown up, and some have grown old. This is the story of the oldest of the signing ape studies, and what happened to its subjects, and why. That there is such a story to tell is due almost entirely to the efforts of Dr. Roger Fouts, who fought for the apes--and the efforts of Washoe, the chimpanzee, who insisted the man join the project to begin with.

It's a good story, and its authors have done a good job balancing the personal, professional, and scientific threads. Dr. Roger Fouts has not had a conventional life, nor did Washoe, the real protagonist of the story, have a conventional chimpanzee life. In the course of telling their story, this book must at least introduce subjects as diverse as chimpanzee behavior, the grammar of American Sign Language, the process of getting a PhD in psychology, and a the making of a Tarzan movie--and all these topics are introduced well.

I am personally interested in chimpanzee behavior, but I knew a fair bit about them before reading the book. For me, the brief introduction to neurology was what touched off a new train of thought. When I talk about the book, it is usually because I'm talking about the difference between linear and non-linear thought, which I first read about here. Apparently, different kinds of brain matter are involved in each kind of process, and we differ in the proportion of each type we have. Understanding that not everybody's brain works the same way is an important part of appreciating how others think--and it's an important part of realizing that other people's brains work just as well.

But I don't think a memoir about chimpanzee language research is the best place to send people interested in neurology.

The reason I'd send most people to this book is for a clear example of how chimpanzees don't get the respect they deserve. There is a whole world of working for the rights of chimpanzees in research and entertainment. That world is largely invisible from the outside; apart from the occasional mention in a news story, most of us encounter chimpanzees only through entertainment as figures of fun. This book presents chimpanzees as individuals and opens up a whole world. This is a conversation that needs to happen.

But maybe you already know about that world. I won't assume that you are unaware, so I won't say you should read this book in order to be made aware.

Maybe for you this will simply be an excellent story, a story about a chimpanzee of amazing strength of character who happened to have been taught sign language, and a man who decided to take her welfare seriously.

Fouts, R., Mills, S. T. (1997). Next of kin: My conversations with chimpanzees. Avon Books: New York, NY.

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