Laura Ann Petitto and Project Nim Chimpsky: What do “talking apes” tell us?
In the mid 1970′s, while still a college undergraduate, Laura Ann Petitto moved into a 37-room mansion on the New York Palisades with a baby male chimpanzee. She was to be the ape’s primary teacher, Head Project Coordinator, and “mother,” and she was to raise him just like a child, while attempting to teach him American Sign Language.
The experiment was conducted at Columbia University and was called “Project Nim Chimpsky,” and he was named after the renowned scientist and scholar in Linguistics, Noam Chomsky.
In addition to the day-to-day challenge of living with a wild animal – the sheer danger of these animals is one of the best kept secrets among ape-language researchers – Petitto formed a deep, powerful, and lasting bond with Nim Chimpsky (see Petitto’s reflections upon Nim’s death). As Project Coordinator, Petitto’s responsibilities included the design of experimental studies and data collection procedures, developing teaching methods for working with the ape, sign language instruction to other project members, and data analyses and interpretation.
The questions were tantalizing, age-old, and “Project Nim Chimpsky” was the most comprehensive attempt to answer it: Are all aspects of human language entirely “teachable” and “learnable” from environmental input, as the Behaviorist, B. F. Skinner, had argued? Or, are there aspects of human language that can not be taught because it was part of our human biological endowment, as the Linguist Noam Chomsky had argued? Are humans alone the possessors of language on this planet? Petitto knew that answering these questions would give her unique insights into the essence of being human – and, in the process, would uncover language secrets of the human and ape mind.
Project Nim Chimpsky came to a close in 1979. And after years of analyzing Nim’s (and other apes’) “language,” Petitto concluded that ape “language” differed from ours, and, at the time, most of the blame was placed on the ape’s inability to achieve human-like syntax. But Petitto suspected that something else was different and that the clues lay in intensive study of the very early processes by which humans acquire language. At the time, little was known about the earliest mechanisms that our species employ to begin and maintain language acquisition, and little was known about how our species learned the signed languages to which these apes were being exposed.
For the past 35 years, Petitto has conducted studies on spoken and signed language acquisition in adult and children’s brains. As a result, Petitto has advanced major theories about the brain’s mechanisms and environmental factors that, taken together, determine language acquisition and cerebral organization for language in our species. Meanwhile, she continues to amass crucial answers concerning the most perplexing questions about our closest relatives, the apes. Why are they so similar yet so different from us? Why is it that they still fail to master key aspects of human language grammar even when you give them ways to bypass their inability to speak like us? What is this elusive difference? Are humans and apes as evolutionary close as we once thought?
See Petitto’s publications for scholarly articles on the ape and human mind