Home / Events / STS/CSIS Talk: Marco Michelutto, Thurs. 12/8

STS/CSIS Talk: Marco Michelutto, Thurs. 12/8

When Dec 08, 2011
from 12:00 PM to 01:30 PM
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"Talk, and I shall baptize thee” said Cardinal Melchior de Polignac, as Diderot reports, on seeing an orangutan for the first time.  Centuries later, language remains central to the self-definition of human beings, which has led some researchers to try a seemingly strange experiment: to teach a language to apes, to determine whether they would be able to learn it, and what they would then tell us.  In 1966 at the University of Nevada at Reno, Beatrix and Allen Gardner started experimenting with Washoe, a one year old chimpanzee, who was placed in a human-like surrounding, raised like a human baby, and taught American Sign Language.  Coming from behavioral psychology, the Gardners thought that if language is nothing more than a learned behavior, then it should be possible to teach it to an animal, and particularly to an animal closely related to humans such as a chimpanzee. In a few years they reached, or claimed to reach, important results in both number of words learned and basic grasp of syntax, and soon thereafter more scholars followed in their footsteps, trying to achieve similar results with different apes.  More than forty years, many controversies, and a few funding crises later, similar experiments are still being conducted in Iowa and Washington State, but the story of the program remains to be told.

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