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Monday, August 29, 2011

Common Misconceptions about Bow, about Project Bow, about Chimpanzees and about Humans


There are different kinds of people who are interested in Project Bow and in Bow himself. There are those who are drawn in by my scientific claims, but aren't particularly interested in chimpanzees, in psychology, in relationships between and among individuals -- or in people for that matter. They just want to know: can you prove it? By prove it they mean: show that he is writing independently, without confounding factors, without any possibility that Clever Hans is involved, without the slightest doubt from any of the most uninitiated observers that it is all coming from him. The answer is: no, I can't. Then admit it, they say, you have failed! Okay, fine, I've failed.

But they don't stop there. They want to know what I would do differently if I had to do it over again. Would I be more careful to condition Bow not to use our hands? Would I demand that he do everything by himself? Would I refuse to give him food unless he touched the correct lexigram? Would I be really tough about it? Would I resort to behavioral conditioning? The answer is: no. I wanted to know whether Bow could pick up language spontaneously in context. If I had done those things, he would not have. We wouldn't have had a relationship. Any language he learned would have been learned by rote. Any linguistic task he performed would have been a chore done for a reward.So, no, I do not regret taking the path that I took.

Other people, even very friendly people, are oblivious to the fact that he can use language. They just want to know "Is he friendly? What is your routine like? What does he like to eat or to play?" I appreciate their interest, but it makes me wonder if they have been deprived of chimpanzee companionship so much, that just the very fact that he is a chimpanzee fascinates them more than anything else about him. Everybody needs more contact with chimpanzees. I don't blame them for being curious, but I think that because chimpanzees are so embattled in this world, nobody can see them with a clear eye for who they really are.

Chimpanzees are not cute and cuddly more human versions of dogs. They do not obey orders. They don't care if you disapprove of something they do. They will push you around, just to see what you do. They are very interested in who is stronger. They have a morality of tit-for-tat, and they do not turn the other cheek.

Bow is nine and a half years old. He is going through puberty. He is moody and unpredictable, sometimes very playful and nice, and at other times extremely aggressive. I walk a tightrope to keep on top of his current mood. Yesterday he said to me: "Bow's not mad that Mommy is not strong. Bow's glad that Mommy is weak." I didn't know what to make of that.

One woman told me that so long as I did not beat him with a stick, she did not think I was abusive. This statement astounded me on so many levels that I was struck dumb. Do you think that with the disparity in strength and agility between me and him, that I would escape with my life if I tried that? It isn't a question of whether I am being abusive to him. I go in barefooted and barehanded to be with someone who could kill me with only his jaws for a weapon, if he so desired. Does he? No, of course not. But he does sometimes try to gain the upper hand in a game of intimidation, and I have to be very aggressive right back to let him know it's not working. And sometimes I have to step out into the adjoining pen and let him cool off.

What kind of person am I that I can do this? How can I stay with him twelve hours a day when this is the situation? Why is it that I'm not so polite to people who ask such questions? Well, I guess I am not a very nice person.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's a reflex, really, and being with Bow all this time has sharpened my reflexes.

Some people think that humans are completely different from chimpanzees, because we are so much more civilized and in our civilization natural consequences have given way to logical consequences. I don't see that. I see a world that is governed entirely by natural consequences. Some of them are pretty grim.

But in the meantime, Bow and I will survive. We will play and talk, and we will reach out to new people and to other chimpanzees world wide. While I can't prove anything directly about Bow's cognition and language ability, there are other indirect ways to gather proof. There is eye tracking, and there is behavioral data from interactions with others, and that is the direction that my research will take in the future.

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No one can force Bow to cooperate to prove what he knows. But he may yet give himself away indirectly, just because he does know it. And I think that's worth waiting for!



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