Apes, Grapes, and Us

I write. give grape."

no, that's not your editorial writer seeking a reward for putting ink to paper.

Rather, these "words" were uttered by a synthesized computer voice after a chimpanzee, communicating with her trainer, hit visual symbols on a special keyboard.

It's not exactly Shakespeare, but then this recent instance of an animal apparently putting a sentence together might leave us humans scratching our heads, ape-like, over the level of intelligence expressed by other living things.

Animal rights advocates quickly pounced on the "breakthrough" work at Georgia State University, hailing this use of Chomsky-like syntax by a great ape. They claim it raises the ethical bar on how to treat animals that are close to us in the grand web of life.

If a chimp can communicate with skills similar to those of a two-year-old child, is it not a "sentient being" worthy of legal rights? (Or, at the least, is it worthy to be in Talk magazine?)

The scientific consensus is still incomplete on whether apes (or whales, dolphins, parrots, etc.) have broken the language barrier that separates humans from other animals.

Until then, we best judge such experiments solely as insights gained in how animals - in their own right - express a unique reasoning capacity and use their own language. Thought - dare say, reality - is not limited by lack of human language (sorry, Wittgenstein).

At least let's have enough respect for chimps not to put them in small cages or kill them after doing medical tests on them. That would be one small step for man, one giant leap for apes.

Now, the grape, please.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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