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Thursday, October 7, 2010

News About Kanzi

Bow and I live in isolation in a protected zone inside our pens. We have an internet connection, and we subscribe to a couple of magazines, but we don't watch TV, and we don't get any newspapers, except the ones that arrive for free and are used to line the bottom of Sword's bird cages. However, when something that affects us happens in the outer world, the news eventually filters down even to us.

Yesterday, as usual, Lawrence was trying to get Bow to use his computer. Bow spelled something on the glass. (I don't remember what it was.) And Lawrence said to him: "Why don't you say that on your computer?"

Bow took the chopstick from Lawrence, strode purposefully toward the computer, poked at it once, and the computer said, in its robot voice: "Why?" Lawrence didn't see what key Bow hit, but he figures it must have been the letter Y. Nevertheless, "why" is what Bow seems to have meant. Why should I spell it on the computer when you can understand me perfectly well when I spell it on the glass?

Well, the answer might have been: so you can go on Oprah. When Lawrence was leaving, he turned to me and said: "My family tells me they saw some chimp on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and he wasn't just an ordinary chimp; he used symbols to communicate. And also, he could blow up balloons."

I raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure it was a chimp? It sounds like a bonobo. What was his name?"

"I don't know. I didn't see the show. My wife and kids saw it."

"Well, it sounds like Kanzi," I said.

"Oh, so you've heard about him?" Lawrence asked.

I smiled. "I've met him."

When Lawrence had gone, Bow said to me: "Bow is trying not to be mad that Kanzi is important."

This made me laugh. Jealousy doesn't have to be all bad. It could be a very good motivator for Bow. Then I called my mother, to see if she had caught that Oprah show. She said she hadn't. So then I googled it. It's not very hard to find. Just google "Oprah Kanzi" and immediately you'll find evidence that Oprah had a segment about Kanzi recently.

One of the articles this search led me to had a very nice picture of Kanzi, and underneath, it said: "Kanzi has English comprehension on the same level as a two and a half year old human child." That's based on a study conducted decades ago. I shared this with Bow and asked him what he thought about that. "Those people are stupid," he said.

Kanzi's comprehension is not limited to the weird novel sentences that were used to prove his understanding of English syntax. His English production ability is not limited to the lexigrams at his disposal. Anyone would sound like a two year old if limited to lexigrams and not allowed to spell out words. What primatologists manage to "prove" and what they actually know about the primates they work with are two different things.

This morning Bow was still thinking about that. Before breakfast, when I was expecting him to tell me what he wanted to eat, he spelled out: "Kanzi is not a baby. Kanzi is big. Everyone knows Kanzi is not stupid."

"Yes, you're right, Bow," I said.

Kanzi is thirty years old. And, no, he's not stupid. Neither is Sue.

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