Through her controversial work teaching language to bonobo apes, Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is challenging the assumptions that underpin our idea of society.
For more than half her life, 64-year-old Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has waged a tireless campaign to break the language barrier separating humans from bonobos – the great ape species native to the Congo with which humans share 98 percent of our genetic makeup.
Savage-Rumbaugh’s work has taken her from the language department at Georgia State University to Iowa’s Great Ape Trust, and has made celebrities of her most famous charges – Kanzi and Panbanisha, whose abilities to drive golf carts and play Pac-Man have garnered millions of views on YouTube.
But it’s the more serious issue of ending the linguistic isolation of our ‘lost brothers’ that concerns Savage-Rumbaugh – named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world this year – and it’s a subject that has made her a figure of considerable controversy, both for those who deem apes incapable of anything beyond mimicry, and those determined to maintain a human dominion over the linguistic world.
“People are very unsettled by apes, and understandably so,” Savage-Rumbaugh says. “We fear the beast in ourselves, and for a long time that was something we projected onto primitive people. Then ethnographers went to live with indigenous people and said, ‘Wait, they’re like us, they just have a different culture.’
“The same is true of apes: apes can recognise themselves in mirrors, they can draw, they have a sense of creativity and a reflective notion of ‘self’ similar to humans. No matter how intelligent a dog or a monkey is, they don’t demonstrate that same intelligence. So one has to ask: if we’re going to draw the line between humans and animals, then shouldn’t apes be on the side with humans, and the rest of the animal kingdom on the other?
“We and bonobos could learn so much from each other. We’re both limping along as injured species, and if we could put the best of both of us together, we could be superhuman.”
“Right now the only real barrier is one of communication. Bonobos communicate at a higher frequency, and the transition between their consonants and vowels is very difficult for us to hear. We use a programme that converts human speech into lexigrams [symbols that represent words but are not necessarily indicative of the objects referenced by them] that bonobos understand and use to communicate back via a touch screen. If we could change the parameters so that it recognised bonobo vocalisations that were repetitive – when they make multiple attempts to say ‘apple’, for example – then we would have an application that allows for running translations of what they say to us and vice-versa. At that point there’s no reason why our two cultures shouldn’t co-exist.
“I’m not looking to achieve what you might call ‘racial integration’,” Savage-Rumbaugh adds, “just for apes to be treated with dignity and respect. But it’s not only apes that we’ve kept in the closet: it’s the same with children who have learning disabilities, for example. Anyone with whom we can’t adequately communicate doesn’t sit properly in human society. But there’s a great reward for people who make time to break down those barriers, because individuals who haven’t conformed to society often have a capacity to love without qualification or condition. I feel we and bonobos could learn so much from each other. We’re both limping along as injured species, and if we could put the best of both of us together, we could be superhuman.”