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Friday, July 18, 2014

Recognizing Our Bias

Everyone has a bias. It's impossible not to, just as each picture we take is viewed from a particular perspective and is colored in some way by our point of view.


Change the place where you are standing and the perspective shifts.


Stand further away and a bigger picture emerges, though the details are less clear.


Perspective shifting is something writers are familiar with. Psychologists will tell you that autistics have trouble doing this. But everyone has a bias, even psychologists. And real perspective shifting is something that requires a degree of detachment that few of us are capable of. Even among primatologists and others who work with chimpanzees, there are built in biases that taint almost every experiment.


Here are some books that I have read about the lives of chimpanzees who have lived among humans. Every book tells a story, and every story is told from a particular bias. In the case of Nim Chimpsky, I have read the same story from more than one bias. In the case of Washoe, I have only ever read the story from one perspective.  But Washoe, Lucy and Nim were contemporaries, and their stories were interlinked. Today, we tend to hear about all of them from a single point of view: that of people who see ape language experimentation as a damaging practice that is naturally bad for chimpanzees. Whether the scientist is Herbert Terrace or the Gardners, the story is actually told from the point of view of the assistants who worked for them, played with and took care of their chimps, and those who stayed with the abandoned youngster once the experiment was over or who rescued him or her from the mouth of hell when nobody else cared.

Don't get me wrong: I do think what was done to Washoe, Nim, and Lucy was bad. It was bad to abandon them. It was bad to enculturate them and then just walk away. But I don't think teaching them our language was bad. I don't think exposing them to our culture or sharing our lives with them is bad. But when you read the cautionary tales about their lives told from the point of view of Roger Fouts or Bob Ingersoll, that's all you get. It might as well be the story of Oliver Twist, with the animal language experimenter as Fagin, and Bill Lemmon as Sykes.


In case you think I am mistaken in thinking there is this bias, read this review:

Betrayed by Science: The Story of Nim Chimpsky.

There are several different, but somewhat related, questions to consider in ape language experimentation:


  • Is there any knowledge to be gained from exposing other apes to our language and culture?
  • Is it humane to rear apes among humans?
  • Do chimpanzees have a language ability comparable to that of humans?
  • How could we go about proving their ability without introducing our bias into the experiment?
  • How should the care of chimpanzees in capativity be financed?
  • Is there something about how the care of chimpanzees is financed that biases the result of experiments?

In reading the book by Elizabeth Hess or watching the related Project Nim movie there seems to be only one answer that comes to mind: NO! No, there is no knowledge to be gained, no, it is not humane, no chimpanzees do not have comparable language ability. There is only one way to finance chimpanzee captivity: through government money and tax free donations given to reputable sanctuaries. No, the government money and its conditions do not bias experiments.

 So how does this single perspective on the issue come about? Chiefly it is because scientists who depend on government grants lose their voice after the grants are taken away. Herbert Terrace believed his research with Nim was valid, and that he had disproven the theories of Noam Chomsky, up until the moment when he gave up on getting more funding for his project, at which point he suddenly recanted and changed his tune. The Gardners who worked with Washoe were convinced that they had proven she could sign meaningfully, but they gave up custody of her and sent her off with Roger Fouts, who eventually had to find a way to rescue her. So we hear the stories told from the humanitarian perspective of people who were not language experimenters, but who ended up picking up the pieces when the actual scientists dropped the ball. From their point of view, the experiments were nonsense, but the damage to the chimpanzees was palpable,  tragic and causeless. People like Fouts, after having the privilege of interacting with chimpanzees for years at public expense then blame the system and exhort us never to try to teach another ape language ever again.

Recently one of these humanitarian intervenors got in touch with me. We had been in correspondence about a year ago, but he surfaced again after my last blog post. I think it was the last blog post that reminded him about Bow, not because I wrote about Bow, but because I raised my voice in defense of a live-and-let-live policy toward other privately owned chimpanzees. He says he would like to help me and Bow, which is nice, but I wanted to make sure we had our perspectives clear and that his bias would not blind him. I mentioned the bias in the Project Nim movie, and he replied that he didn't think there was any bias in the Project Nim movie. When someone says there's no bias, what he's really saying is that the perspective from which the movie is shot is exactly his own.

I am trying to figure out now how best to explain this to him. Because even though this guy is much more neurotyical than I am, he's really bad at perspective shifting. He is good with chimpanzees.They like him. He has always felt kindly toward them and was able to enjoy an uninhibited  playful relationship with chimps, and so he thinks that the other, more intellectual way of relating to them is probably nonsense.

Every chimpanzee, like every human being, has many different types of needs: physical, emotional, social, intellectual and even spiritual. What typifies the scientific mentality is to relate most directly to the mind of the chimp, while ignoring his physical needs. That's largely what Herbert Terrace did, leaving the day to day care of Nim to assistants. It is also what the Gardners did. It is said that they were more like grandparents to Washoe than actual parents. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, unless it blinds the scientists to the other needs of the chimps besides intellectual stimulation.

What typifies the caretakers is that they were largely big-hearted, nurturing individuals who were less interested in the research than in a physical, playful relationship with their charge. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, unless it blinds one to the other needs of the chimp besides the social, emotional and physical.

One of the lessons I think everyone should learn from the Nim Chimpsky story is that you do not abandon a child that you have adopted, even if he is just a chimpanzee. Another lesson is that once somebody has learned something, like language or culture, you cannot expect him to just unlearn those things and be happy under "more natural conditions." Nim was not scarred for life by the absence of chimp companions. He was shocked by being abandoned by every human he had come to trust. He was sold down the river, because everybody  he depended on needed government funding to keep their projects going.

 But these are not the lessons that the book or movie emphasize. Instead, most people somehow go away with the idea that every chimp is better off in a sanctuary "among his own kind."  That  is the bias of Project Nim.

So I am hearing a lot from this individual about how great the facilities at certain sanctuaries are, but not about wanting to place homeless chimps with me and Bow. It just all seems very one sided.

In thinking of things that this individual might do to help me and Bow, I brought up the possibility of recruiting other chimps to talk to Bow via Skype or Facetime or some other electronic device. I mentioned that I had wanted to do this also with privately owned chimps, but most of their owners don't give the adolescent or adults among their chimps access to electronics. He replied that this is because chimpanzees largely don't respond to that kind of stimulus and don't interact with others long distance.

Bow loves electronics. When I got my new iPhone, he immediately wanted to change the camera perspective so he could see himself when taking a picture.



He has spoken to his grandmother  and others on Skype.



The difficulty with these long distance conversations is that Bow feels the need to display at the start, as he would indeed when meeting someone after a long period of not seeing them or in reacting to a new person who might be an intruder. With other chimpanzees as well, I expect it will take some accustomation before any communication beyond "I am bigger and stronger than you" will take place. So what we need is a regular, continuing and committed long distance relationship with another chimpanzee.

What can we learn from this? Lot of things! Among others, we can learn how chimpanzees communicate, how chimpanzees relay information to one another long distance, and whether there is any abstract code for the transmission of information that does not depend on showing another chimp where something is hidden.

What would Bow gain from this? A long distance friend of his own kind, without risking leaving home, losing his loved ones, or engaging in a physical confrontation with another chimp.

But this only makes sense if you believe there is more to a chimpanzee than just a very powerful, very affectionate animal. Those who tend to see the playful animal that resides in every chimp tend to discount the mind that is also there and is capable of abstract thinking. Those who see the mind sometimes forget the social and emotional needs.  We tend to see in others a little bit of ourselves. This stereotyping happens to children as well as chimpanzees.  Nurturers see physical and emotional needs. Teachers see intellectual potential. Scientists want to test how much there is of each.



Everybody's got a bias. The first step in trying to communicate with someone else is to acknowledge what our bias is. Sometimes that takes an intellectual effort from someone whose normal mode of operation is to go by gut feeling alone.


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