Saturday, July 22, 2006

Kanzi, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Sue Savage-Rumbagh & Roger Lewin'sKanzi is an anecdotal presentation of the capabilities of modern, communicating apes, focusing on Kanzi, who has learned to use an ideograph-based keyboard. Savage-Rumbaugh relates many experiences that don't fit easily into the controlled scientific process in order to show us how much more capable Kanzi and his cousins are than the studies can demonstrate. At the end of it I'm fairly well convinced that Kanzi is communicating, has intentionality, has a mental model that includes the fact that others know different things than he does (sometimes more, sometimes less), can make plans, can and does lie, has a mental map of his (apparently large) normal range and can plan routes in it, and uses grammatic and semantic categories.

I think it is highly likely that these abilities are not shared with chimpanzees and bonobos in the wild, but that many of them would develop such skills if raised in appropriate environments. This conclusion isn't based directly on evidence that Savage-Rumbagh presents, but is my own deduction from the fact that more than a half dozen random individual chimps and bonobos have displayed similar talents when exposed to a variety of language tools more suited to their use than oral speech.

I'm not inclined to think that this changes the moral category of those species in toto, though it probably should have implications for how we treat the individuals that we have raised to such awareness. In order to justify drawing a line to include some chimps and bonobos as aware, and leave most as simple animals, I need to be clear about my thoughts about why we don't draw a similar line distinguishing normal humans from some subset that appears to be less aware than Kanzi. I think the argument that declaring some humans to be outside the protected boundary is a "slippery slope" is a good enough justification for treating all humans as if they were sapient. The difference in intellect between the chimps and bonobos who have acquired language and their kin who haven't is large enough that there's little hazard in drawing a line between them.

Savage-Rumbagh did most of her work in a lab that mainly focused on developmentally challenged clients. Some of the work with Kanzi suggested techniques for teaching them communication skills. These techniques turned out to help some of them significantly in mixing with their mainstream peers.

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