Washoe was a 42 year old chimpanzee living at Central Washington University who died on Tuesday night. She is famous because she was a participant in one of the most important animal language studies in the last three decades. People have always wondered about and debated upon the true differences between humans and animals, and one of the primary differences that has been held up for centuries is language. Some linguists had tried to teach various primates, usually chimps and bonobos, aspects of human speech, but they never went very well.
The great insight came in the 70s (or maybe 60s), when scientists simply noted that a chimp's vocal tract is built rather differently than ours and so, even if they are mentally capable of speech, they just won't be able to get it out of their throats. There's a physical reason that chimp's calls sound different from a human's. So the researchers switched to sign languages and the results were drastically different. Chimps could learn a hundred or more signs. They seemed to be able to combine signs in novel pairs to make new sentences they had never heard. And Washoe, Washoe was one of the best. She also taught some of what she had learned to her own children.
Critics have long said that Washoe and others have not captured true language the way that people do. I think they are right. B, at 4, has vastly exceeded Washoe's abilities despite years and years of training for her and little explicit training for B. However, before Washoe, who knew that a chimp could do so much? Time and again, we underestimate what others can do. Did you know that infants can track conditional probabilities over time? Newborns can tell the difference between stories their mother read while they were in the womb versus a story they've never heard. Tamarins can find words in a speech stream. Rats can distinguish languages. Dogs get depressed. Parrots can dance in rhythm with the Back Street Boys.
Washoe is not human. Maybe she is proud of that. But she is yet another reminder of our ignorance about the abilities of other creatures in this world. They deserve our humility and respect.