Hanging from the Language Tree

In a famous experiment over 30 years ago, psychology professor Herb Terrace hoped to prove that chimpanzees could acquire speech. Today, as director of the Primate Cognition Laboratory at Columbia, he’s searching for the missing link to cognition.

by Cindy Rodríguez Published Fall 2009
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Around the same time, Terrace began working on a book about Project Nim. His research required him to review hours of videotaped sessions with the chimp. One day, while watching in slow motion, Terrace’s eyes widened. He leaned forward, amazed at what he realized for the first time: Nim wasn’t communicating; he was mimicking his teachers.

Terrace hit rewind, and reviewed one tape after another, astonished to find that Nim had never spontaneously signed. He was parroting his instructors, following prompts, to get a food reward.

“It was there all the time, but I didn’t see it,” Terrace says. “We were so busy focusing on the chimp that we weren’t paying attention to the teacher. Once it was clear, it was clear. I knew I had to tell the world.”

Terrace wondered whether it was just Nim or if other famous apes had fooled their researchers. He began analyzing videos of other investigators: Allen and Beatrice Gardner and their chimp Washoe; and Francine Patterson and her gorilla Koko. Examining freeze-frames, Terrace could see that the apes were being inadvertently prompted. The evidence was damning: apes, he concluded, can’t learn language.

Terrace, along with a Columbia psycholinguist and two graduate students, published their findings in a 1979 article in Science. He also acknowledged publicly that Chomsky was right.

“For the moment, our detailed investigation suggests that an ape’s language learning is severely restricted,” Terrace wrote. “Apes can learn many isolated symbols (as can dogs, horses, and other nonhuman species), but they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.”

He was not prepared for the response. The article angered many primate cognition researchers, who feared it would impede their work. And they were right; funding for ape language-acquisition studies fell.

Thirty years later, sitting in his Schermerhorn Hall office, Terrace, 72, still feels reverberations: “I have a reputation for being a killjoy.” But that wasn’t his intention. “I had this fantasy that I was going to be Dr. Doolittle,” Terrace says. “Everybody wanted the chimps to have language, as did I originally. What would be better? It would have been the first time we communicated with another species.”

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