Kanzi, a bonobo chimpanzee, has become quite famous. He has appeared on television and been on the cover of many magazines because of his ability to communicate. This article about him was written by Paul Raffaele for Smithsonian magazine in 2006. Raffaele is a journalist who has covered much of the world for the Smithsonian Museum and Reader's Digest. He has written two books about his adventures: The Last Tribes on Earth: Journeys Among the World's Most Threatened Cultures and Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual
I traveled to Iowa, to meet Kanzi, a 26-year-old male bonobo reputedly able to converse with humans. When Kanzi was an infant, American psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh tried to teach his mother to communicate using a keyboard labeled with geometric symbols. Kanzi's mother never really got the hang of it, but Kanzi picked up the language.
First Kanzi used 6 symbols, then 18, finally 348. The symbols refer to familiar objects (yogurt, key, tummy, bowl), favored activities (chase, tickle), and even some concepts considered fairly abstract (now, bad). Kanzi learned to combine these symbols in regular ways. Once, Savage-Rumbaugh said, on a trip to the woods Kanzi touched the symbols for marshmallow and fire. Given matches and marshmallows, Kanzi snapped twigs for a fire, lit them with the matches, and toasted the marshmallows on a stick.
Savage-Rumbaugh claims that Kanzi knows the meaning of up to 3,000 spoken English words. She says Kanzi also understands words that aren't a part of his keyboard vocabulary; she says he can respond appropriately to commands such as "put the soap in the water" or "carry the TV outdoors."
About a year ago, Kanzi and his sister, mother, nephew, and four other bonobos moved into a $10 million, 18-room house and laboratory complex at the Great Ape Trust near Des Moines. Kanzi and the other bonobos spend evenings sprawled on the floor, snacking on M&M's, blueberries, onions, and celery, as they choose DVDs to watch. Their favorites DVDs star apes and other creatures friendly with humans.
Savage-Rumbaugh has been testing the bonobos' ability to express their thoughts vocally. In one experiment, she placed Kanzi and his sister in separate rooms where they could hear but not see each other. Savage-Rumbaugh explained to Kanzi that he would be given yogurt. He was then asked to communicate this information to his sister. Kanzi vocalized, then his sister vocalized in return and selected "yogurt" on the keyboard in front of her.
With these and other ape-language experiments, says Savage-Rumbaugh, the mythology of human uniqueness is coming under challenge. If apes can learn language, which we once thought unique to humans, then it suggests that ability is not innate in just us.
But many people argue that these bonobos are simply very skilled at getting what they want and their abilities do not constitute language. "I do not believe that there has ever been an example anywhere of a nonhuman expressing an opinion, or asking a question. Not ever," says Geoffrey Pullum, a language specialist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "It would be wonderful if animals could say things about the world, as opposed to just signaling a direct emotional state or need. But they just don't."
Human communication is structurally complex while the animal communication is not. The former is conditioned by time and geography, the latter is not. For example, the dogs of all the counties have the same system of massage and symbols. Human beings, on the other hand, use a variety of symbols which differ from one nation or geographical region to another. Human language is much more acquired by effort and is the result of social interaction. Animal communication differs in this respect too. If a human child is kept away from human society for a long time, and is conditioned to live in the community, say of wolves, in all probability, he will not be able to acquire human language. In other word, animal system of communication is instinctive and inherited; human language is not such. Human language has a much wider range of flexibility, modification, change, variety, creativity, etc. than animal communication. In human language, the element of the mimicry is more than it is in the animal communication. The organs of speech by which humans produce sounds from a rare gift of nature to man. No other species except apes and monkeys has been exdowed with this gift.
We can summarize the difference between the human language and the animal system of communication in the following manner.
1. Unlimited and infinite
2. Open system
3. Extendable, modification
4. Flexible and full of variety
7. Conditioned by geography
8. Full of novelty and creativity
10. Has grammaticality
11. Cognitive as well as behavioral
12. Descriptive and narrative
Animal communication system
1. Limited and finite
2. Closed system
3. Unextendable and unmodifiable
4. Inflexible and without variety
7. Not conditioned by geography
8. Before of novelty and creativity
10. Has no grammaticality
11. Only behavioral
12. Non-descriptive and non-narrative