Talking apes

Braxton M. ALFRED (
Tue, 7 May 1996 19:30:09 +0000

There are a couple of things that have come up in other places that I
wish to comment on: (1) Is Dick Fischer a talking ape?, (2) Are
Koko, Washoe, et al talking apes?

The short answer is no and no.

Taxonomy is at best, ie when living forms are being observed and
classified, a black art. Ultimately all classification is arbitrary
and depends heavily on the biases of the classifier. However, even
accepting that the legitimacy of a sub-order called Hominidae which
includes the taxa Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes only asserts a
distant relationship. No member of H. sapiens can be legitimately
called a P. troglodytes (or vice versa) - except, obviously, in the
pejorative sense. Also accepting that the Australopithicines were
the first hominids (bipeds), one still cannot refer to a modern human
as a southern ape. Apeness is forever lost. Some may think more's
the pity.

Now, the apes being taught ASL (or other manual based language systems
like Yerkish) - no linguist has ever claimed that what the apes are doing is even
close to language use. Most of the positive statements are by the
trainers - who need to get a grant renewed. See the report on Nim

Aside from musculo-skeletal morphology, the only similarity between
chimps and humans is biochemical - DNA specifically. While the degree
of identity is certainly surprising, recognizing that all (?) genes are pleiotropic
and all aspects of phenotype are polygenic must compromise any attempt
to argue for close affinity.