A Chimp Named Washoe

Chimpanzees - A Chimp Named Washoe

In the 1960s, a husband and wife team conducted an experiment with a chimp named Washoe. R. Allen Gardner was a psychologist, and his wife Beatrix was a zoologist. They took a young chimpanzee and attempted to raise it like a human child. The name came from a native American tribe and Washoe County, Nevada.

The couple taught Washoe American Sign Language (ASL), which they said he learned very quickly. Over time, Washoe learned 350 words and used them in combination, such as “Gimme Sweet.” R. Allen Gardner recently passed away, and his work has been revived in several popular magazines and journals.

When Gardner published the report about raising a chimp named Washoe, some people used it to say that chimps are merely less developed humans. They said the Gardner’s had to use ASL because the anatomical structure of a chimpanzee’s mouth and throat was simply inadequate to speak in human language. Furthermore, Washoe taught a bonobo named Kanzi to use ASL. Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, had a department called The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute which closed in 2013. Washoe died there in 2007.

Scientists have conducted many experiments on the interaction between chimps and humans. Sometimes they had negative results when the chimps reverted to their normal behavior as seen in the wild. Animal rights proponents have pushed to have chimps receive the same rights as humans. Some evolutionists would point to this as proof that humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor.

While the research is interesting and the creativity of the Gardners is impressive, there are some important things to point out. There has never been a question about whether animals can mimic human sounds. A parrot can rattle off human words and even phrases. There have even been dogs that could make a sound that resembles human words. Learning sounds and putting them into a form that elicits the desired response is not language. Webster defines language as “a system of communication which consists of a set of sounds and written symbols used by the people of a particular country or region for talking or writing,”

Mimicking a sound is not language. A chimp named Washoe using ASL is not human language. Humans project ideas, feelings, and artistic expression of life in music and art using language. The evidence supports a vast difference between animals and humans, as described in the Genesis account.
The Bible tells us that humans are uniquely created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). That refers to our spiritual makeup expressed in language and may or may not include sound. Baby humans learn to mimic, but it isn’t until they reach some level of maturity that they express spiritual creativity. Humans express the image of God in morality and the structure of society, as well as in language, art expression, and appreciation of beauty. The more we learn about animals, the more we appreciate how well-designed they are, but they are not humans.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

We previously reported that Koko, the gorilla raised by Penny Patterson, also mastered ASL. You can read about that HERE and HERE.