And now Washoe too…

Washoe Chimp

RIP Washoe the Chimpanzee. What a sad couple of months for the animal communication research programme. Unlike the death of Alex the Parrot, this one was reasonably expected, as Washoe was an quite elderly chimpanzee when she got ill. Despite the protestations of scientific detachment these research programmes inevitably lead to an incredibly close bond between between researchers and subjects. You have to feel for the researchers at the Central Washington University who must feel like they’ve lost a dear friend.

Whilst the general consensus may still be that what Washoe achieved was not language (but instead a conditioned code system), the whole Washoe research programme fired the debate about the definition of human language. People in the Pinker/Chomsky tradition will never be convinced of the value of the Chimpanzee language research programme, but I think the extraordinary results of enculturation have to at least be acknowledged. Washoe may not have used language, but she was exposed to human culture and experience in a way that changed her forever. She was loved because to some extent she shared the human journey, and got closer to us than any animal has before.  I’ll leave the philosophical musings for another time though, and for now mourn the passing of the first one of these remarkable animals. 

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