June 6, 2013
Thirteen years after the release of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published another report on the evolution of mankind. In the 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the naturalist argued that people from different cultures exhibit any given emotion through the same facial expression. This hypothesis didn’t quite pan out—last year, researchers poked a hole in the idea by showing that the expression of emotions such as anger, happiness and fear wasn’t universal (PDF). Nonetheless, certain basic things—such as the urge to cry out in pain, an increase in blood pressure when feeling anger, even shrugging when we don’t understand something—cross cultures.
A new study, published today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, compares such involuntary responses, but with an added twist: Some observable behaviors aren’t only universal to the human species, but to our closest relatives too—chimpanzees and bonobos.
Using video analysis, a team of UCLA researchers found that human, chimpanzee and bonobo babies make similar gestures when interacting with caregivers. Members of all three species reach with their arms and hands for objects or people, and point with their fingers or heads. They also raise their arms up, a motion indicating that they want to be picked up, in the same manner. Such gestures, which seemed to be innate in all three species, precede and eventually lead to the development of language in humans, the researchers say.
To pick up on these behaviors, the team studied
hree babies of differing species through videos taken over a number of months. The child stars of these videos included a chimpanzee named Panpanzee, a bonobo called Panbanisha and a human girl, identified as GN. The apes were raised together at the Georgia State University Language Research Center in Atlanta, where researchers study language and cognitive processes in chimps, monkeys and humans. There, Panpanzee and Panbanisha were taught to communicate with their human caregivers using gestures, noises and lexigrams, abstract symbols that represent words. The human child grew up in her family’s home, where her parents facilitated her learning.
Researchers filmed the child’s development for seven months, starting when she was 11 months old, while the apes were taped from 12 months of age to 26 months. In the early stages of the study, the observed gestures were of a communicative nature: all three infants engaged in the behavior with the intention of conveying how their emotions and needs. They made eye contact with their caregivers, added non-verbal vocalizations to their movements or exerted physical effort to elicit a response.
By the second half of the experiment, the production of communicative symbols—visual ones for the apes, vocal ones for the human—increased. As she grew older, the human child began using more spoken words, while the chimpanzee and bonobo learned and used more lexigrams. Eventually, the child began speaking to convey what she felt, rather than only gesturing. The apes, on the other hand, continued to rely on gestures. The study calls this divergence in behavior “the first indication of a distinctive human pathway to language.”
The researchers speculate that the matching behaviors can be traced to the last shared ancestor of humans, chimps and bobonos, who lived between four and seven million years ago. That ancestor probably exhibited the same early gestures, which all three species then inherited. When the species
diverged, humans managed to build on this communicative capacity by eventually graduating to speech.
Hints of this can be seen in how the human child paired her gestures with non-speech vocalizations, the precursors to words, far more than the apes did. It’s this successful combination of gestures and words that may have led to the birth of human language.
November 19, 2012
Stereotypically, people experiencing a mid-life crisis desperately seek to justify their lives through superficial means, perhaps by buying an expensive sports car or getting into a relationship with a younger romantic partner. Although their behavior looks rather different, a new study says that chimpanzees and orangutans go through a mid-life nadir in overall well-being and happiness that roughly resembles our own.
A team led by psychologist Alexander Weiss of the University of Edinburgh asked zookeepers and researchers around the world to keep track of the well-being of resident chimpanzees and orangutans—508 animals in total. The results of all that record-keeping, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that, like humans, these great apes generally experience a U-shaped pattern of happiness and well-being, starting off with high ratings for happiness as adolescents, declining gradually during middle age (bottoming out in their late 20s or early 30s), and then rising back up again in their elder years.
Although popular conceptions of human mid-life crises focus on material acquisitions, psychologists believe they’re driven by an underlying decline in satisfaction and happiness as we go through middle age, and reflected by increased antidepressant use and suicide risk. In this sense, the primates studied went through a similar pattern:
Of course, unlike with humans, no one can directly ask chimps and orangutans how they are feeling. Instead, the researchers relied upon surveys, filled out by zookeepers and caretakers, that rated the animals’ mood and how much pleasure they took from certain situations. They acknowledge the ratings are necessarily subjective, but they feel that the size of the dataset and consistency in the trends as reported from the different zoos with different animals suggests that the pattern is legitimate.
Weiss’ group originally embarked on the ape study to answer the question of why mid-life dissatisfaction is so common in humans. “We hoped to understand a famous scientific puzzle: why does human happiness follow an approximate U-shape through life?” Weiss said in a statement.
Although many are apt to blame external cultural factors such as disappointing careers or mounting bills as the cause, Weiss felt it was something more fundamental. By showing that a similar pattern exists in other primates, he argues that his team has dispelled the notion that these types of external factors are solely responsible. “We ended up showing that it cannot be because of mortgages, marital breakup, mobile phones or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life,” he said. “Apes also have a pronounced midlife low, and they have none of those.”
Instead of these cultural factors, Weiss suggests that this pattern is rooted in biological or evolutionary factors. It might have been the case, for example, that the human ancestors who had an innate tendency for happiness and satisfaction at the stages of life when they were most vulnerable (youth and old adulthood) might have been less likely to venture into risky and potentially harmful situations in the pursuit of more resources.
August 11, 2011
In the new movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the leader of the ape revolution can talk. In the real world, apes can’t speak; they have thinner tongues and a higher larynx, or vocal box, than people, making it hard for them to pronounce vowel sounds. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have the capacity for language—sign language, after all, doesn’t require any vocalization.
Over the years, researchers have succeeded—and failed—in teaching apes to use language. Here’s a look at some of the more famous “talking” apes.
Viki: Viki, a chimpanzee, came closest to being a real talking ape. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Keith and Catherine Hayes of the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology, then located in Orange Park, Florida, adopted Viki and raised her at home as if she were a human baby. With the Hayeses moving her lips for her, Viki learned to utter “mama.” Eventually, with much difficulty, she managed to say three other words—papa, cup and up—on her own. Viki’s tenure as a talking ape didn’t last long; she died at the age of seven of viral meningitis.
Washoe: In the 1960s, psychologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno recognized that chimpanzees naturally gesture a lot and thought chimps would be well suited for sign language. In 1966, they started working with Washoe. Later, psychologists Roger and Deborah Fouts, now retired from Central Washington University, continued the work. By the end of Washoe’s life in 2007, she knew about 250 signs and could put different signs together to make simple combinations like “Gimmie Sweet” and “You Me Go Out Hurry.” Washoe’s adopted son Loulis also learned to sign—by watching his mother. He was the first ape to learn signs from other apes, not humans. For more on Washoe’s life, read Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin.
Nim: After the success with Washoe, psychologist Herbert Terrace of Columbia University decided to replicate the project. At first, Nim—full name Nim Chimpsky, named after linguist Noam Chomsky who thought language was unique to humans—was raised in a human household. (Washoe had been treated like a person too but had her own trailer.) Later, Nim was removed from the family and his language lessons moved to a lab on Columbia’s campus. In the end, Terrace concluded Nim never really learned language; he had merely been trained to imitate his teachers to get rewards. The sad story of Nim’s life after the project ended is told in the new documentary Project Nim.
Chantek: Chimpanzees are not the only talking apes. In 1978, anthropologist Lyn Miles of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga began studying an orangutan named Chantek. During eight years of study, Chantek learned 150 signs. He also showed signs of being self-aware: he could recognize himself in a mirror. Today, you can visit Chantek at Zoo Atlanta, his home since 1997.
Koko: Koko the gorilla is probably best known for her love of kittens and Mr. Rogers (and maybe less well-known for her encounter with Captain James T. Kirk). Koko’s sign-language training began in 1972 with then-graduate student Francine (Penny) Patterson of Stanford University. According to the Gorilla Foundation, Koko knows 1,000 signs and understands spoken English. It also claims the gorilla has an IQ somewhere between 70 and 95 (the average human IQ is 100). (Critics, however, remain skeptical about some of Koko’s supposed abilities due to the lack of recent scientific publications supporting the claims. (PDF))
Kanzi: Kanzi, a bonobo, doesn’t use sign language; he uses different combinations of lexigrams, or symbols, to communicate. In the early 1980s, psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, then of Georgia State University, was trying to teach Kanzi’s mom, Matata, to use the lexigrams; instead, Kanzi was the one who mastered the symbols. Kanzi understands spoken English and knows close to 400 symbols. When he “speaks,” his lexigram usage follows rules of grammar and syntax, according to researchers at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, where Kanzi now resides. Kanzi is also an accomplished stone-tool maker.
August 5, 2011
It’s the summer of the chimpanzee, at least at the movies. The documentary Project Nim and the sci-fi flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes offer audiences very different forms of simian entertainment, but moviegoers will walk away from both wondering, “Is it ethical to use chimps in research?”
Project Nim chronicles the life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee who was the focus of one of the most (in)famous ape language studies. In 1973, just days old, Nim was taken from his mom at an ape lab in Oklahoma and brought to New York City. Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University, wanted to see if he could communicate with a chimpanzee through language (Nim was named after linguist Noam Chomsky). Because apes do not have the proper physiology to speak, Terrace decided to teach Nim sign language.
The best way to do this, Terrace thought, was to raise Nim among humans. Terrace gave Nim to one of his former graduate students, a mother in a Brady Bunch-style household. Life there was chaotic, with few rules, and no one in Nim’s human family really knew sign language.
Lacking results, Terrace once again took Nim away from his mother. This time he brought him to an old mansion in the New York suburbs owned by Columbia. Nim lived there with a few college students who were his teachers. Nim also made trips to the university’s campus for language training sessions, which he apparently disliked. One former teacher claims Nim used the sign “dirty,” meaning he needed to use the bathroom (he knew how to use a toilet), to get out of the classroom.
As Nim got older, he became stronger, unpredictable—and violent (his teachers have the scars to prove it; he bit one woman’s face so hard that she had a gaping hole in her cheek for months.) This is normal for a chimpanzee. “Nobody keeps a chimp for more than five years,” Terrace says. Soon Terrace ended the project.
Nim is then returned to the Oklahoma lab. This scene is why you should bring tissues to the theater. Nim gets locked up, forced to live alone in a small cage next to the cages of strange creatures he’d never seen before: other chimps. The lab looks like a primate prison. The workers shock the animals with cattle prods to keep them in line. One former worker describes Nim as a “spoiled child.”
Nim’s life gets worse. He is sold to a medical lab for vaccine testing. Later he moves to a sanctuary—for horses. He lives there in almost total isolation, as the owners don’t know how to care for an ape. Nim appears lonely, depressed. It’s heartbreaking.
Nim eventually gets some chimp companionship. But there’s no real happy ending for him. He died in 2000 at the age of 26, quite young for an animal that can live up to 45 years in the wild and 60 in captivity.
The movie begins in Africa with the capture of a female chimpanzee. In the next scene, she’s solving a puzzle in a lab. (Today, chimps used in research are bred in captivity. It is illegal to bring them in from the wild.) This chimp is part of a medical trial for a gene therapy to treat Alzheimer’s. The treatment goes beyond the expectations of medical researcher Will Rodman (played by James Franco); it enhances the cognition of the chimp, making her super-smart. (Ed. note — Mild spoilers ahead, though its nothing you haven’t already seen in the trailers, so consider yourself warned. You can read on after the note below)
The ape passes down her superior intellect to her son, Caesar (played by Andy Serkis with the help of amazing CGI effects). After an unfortunate incident, Caesar’s mom is killed, and the lab manager halts the project and orders all the chimps to be put down. Rodman saves newborn Caesar and takes him home.
This is where Caesar’s life begins to resemble Nim’s. Rodman treats Caesar like a human and teaches him sign language. Several years later, a bigger, stronger Caesar attacks a neighbor while trying to protect Rodman’s father, and is sent away to a primate “sanctuary” that bears a striking resemblance to the Oklahoma lab where Nim lived, right down to the cattle prods. And Caesar must learn how to interact with other apes.
Eventually, Caesar breaks out, steals some of the medicine that made him smart and returns to give it to his ape comrades. The apes revolt and descend on San Francisco. During an incredible battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s clear that the California Highway Patrol—and perhaps all of humankind—is no match for this army of super-simians. By the end (stick around for the credits), it’s clear how the apes will conquer the rest of the world.
What happened to Nim and Caesar made me incredibly sad and made me think about the ethics of captive ape research. I’m not alone.
(Spoiler-concerned readers: You’re safe to read on from here)
Although the premise of Rise of the Planet of the Apes seems absurd, some scientists worry that genetic engineering is advanced enough to create primates with human-like behavior and self-awareness. The U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences released a report last month suggesting such experiments should be off-limits. The United Kingdom along with many other countries already ban the use of great apes in research. The subject is now being debated in the United States.
In the case of Nim, Terrace concluded years after the project ended that the chimp never really understood sign language; he just learned to mimic his teachers to get rewards. As the movie implies, the lack of results could be blamed on the lack of a proper experimental design in the first place. Other apes—most notably Washoe the chimpanzee, Koko the gorilla and Kanzi the bonobo—have been taught to use sign language. The researchers studying them believe they are truly communicating with these animals via language, but there are still some skeptics, including Terrace, who think otherwise.
I have mixed feelings on chimp studies. The sad irony is that the very reason it seems wrong to study chimps is the same reason why they are attractive study subjects: they are our closest living relatives, and the animals that come closest to being like us.
March 30, 2011
On the one hand, it’s pretty amazing that I can find images of a specific mountain gorilla family in Rwanda through a simple Flickr search. But the availability of those photos comes from the numerous visits of humans to the national parks in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda where the world’s remaining 786 mountain gorillas live, and those visits may have a deadly downside for the gorillas: respiratory infections from human viruses.
Mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei) live only in the mountainous region where Congo, Rwanda and Uganda meet, and their small numbers make them vulnerable to extinction. To make matters worse, they are sandwiched between some of the most populous areas of Africa, and threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. A lesser known problem is infectious disease, which is the second biggest cause of death for the gorillas, after trauma, and accounts for one fifth of all sudden deaths.
And now a study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases documents two gorilla deaths from the human metapneumovirus (HMPV) in 2009. During that summer, the Hirwa family of gorillas in Rwanda experienced an outbreak of respiratory disease; 11 of the 12 animals experienced symptoms including coughing, nasal discharge and lethargy. Veterinarians from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project treated five of the gorillas with antimicrobial drugs, but an untreated adult female and a 3-day-old male died. Analyses of the remains revealed that both individuals had been infected with HMPV, though the adult female died of a secondary bacterial pneumonia infection. The HMPV infection likely predisposed her to pneumonia, the researchers say.
“Because there are fewer than 800 living mountain gorillas, each individual is critically important to the survival of their species,” said Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. “But mountain gorillas are surrounded by people, and this discovery makes it clear that living in protected national parks is not a barrier to human diseases.”
The source of the HMPV is unknown, and the two animals that died had not been handled by any of the veterinarians or park staff during the course of their illness. But with the human population ever encroaching and tourists visiting them in their mountain homes, it seems better strategies are needed to protect the gorillas from human diseases.