R. Allen Gardner, 91, dies; Teaching sign language to a chimpanzee named Washoe

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Washoe was 10 months old when his adoptive parents started teaching him to speak, and five months later they were already trumpeting his success. Not only had she learned words; she could chain them as well, creating phrases like “water birds” when she saw a pair of swans and an “open flower” entering a garden.

Washoe was a chimpanzee.

She was born in West Africa, probably an orphan when her mother was killed, sold to a dealer, flown to the United States for Air Force testing and adopted by R. Allen Gardner and his wife, Beatrix. She was raised as if she was a human child. She craved oatmeal with onions and pumpkin pudding.

“The object of our research was to learn how chimpanzees are like humans,” Professor Gardner told Nevada Today, a University of Nevada publication, in 2007. “To measure this accurately, chimpanzees should be raised like human children, and in order to do that, we had to share a common language.

Washoe eventually learned some 200 words, becoming what researchers said was the first non-human to communicate using sign language developed for the deaf.

Professor Gardner, an ethologist who, along with his wife, raised the chimpanzee for nearly five years, died on August 20 at his ranch near Reno, Nevada. He was 91 years old.

His death was announced by the University of Nevada at Reno, where he joined the faculty in 1963 and conducted his research until his retirement in 2010.

When scientific journals reported in 1967 that Washoe (pronounced WA-sho), named after a county in Nevada, had learned to recognize and use multiple gestures and expressions in sign language, the news electrified the world of psychologists and ethologists who study animal behavior.

The Gardners, who had no children, raised the young monkey on their ranch in his early years.

Her ability to form simple sentences – like making “Me, Washoe” gestures when she looked at herself in a mirror – was a linguistic feat that Roger Brown, a Harvard psychologist, told the New York Times was akin to “achieving. an SOS from space “.

“Absolutely groundbreaking work,” said Duane M. Rumbaugh, scientist emeritus at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, retrospectively in 2007.

Gardner’s findings challenge the hypothesis that humans are uniquely equipped to express themselves through language. Their research also gave educators a better understanding of how children learn language and how to apply that knowledge to people with learning disabilities.

The evidence for the Gardners’ early communication with Washoe has been met with skepticism by some researchers.

Herbert S. Terrace, a cognitive psychologist at Columbia University, said at the time – and repeated in a recent email – that only humans can speak spontaneously and use grammar, two pillars of language.

He said his own analysis found that “most of the signs of chimps were artifacts of unconscious signals from their teachers” and not spontaneous.

Nevertheless, the Gardners were able to replicate their research with four additional baby chimpanzees.

And subsequent studies by the couple and other researchers – using various methods of communication, such as identifying objects with symbols and pressing buttons instead of signing – have shown that if chimpanzees and bonobos lacked sufficient physical control over their tongue, lips and larynx to speak vocally like humans, they were able to understand the concept of a word and learn a language, and could chat using signals manuals.

Robert Allen Goldberg, known as Allen, was born on February 21, 1930 in Brooklyn. (It is not known when his last name was changed.) His father was Milton George Goldberg, an industrial engineer and a former smuggler. Her mother was May (Klein) Goldberg. His younger brother, Herb Gardner, would become famous as a playwright.

His parents took Allen with them as they delivered illegal alcohol, believing the police wouldn’t suspect a couple with a baby.

He received a BA from New York University in 1950, an MA from Columbia in 1951, and a doctorate in 1954 from Northwestern University, where he studied learning theory under the supervision of educational psychologist Benton J. Underwood.

He served in the military as a research psychologist and taught at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where, in a love talk given by psychologist Harry Harlow, he met fellow teacher Beatrix ( sometimes spelled Beatrice) Tugendhut, known as Trixie.

They married in 1961 and moved to the University of Nevada, where she, herself a psychologist and zoologist, became his research collaborator. She died in 1995.

No immediate family member survives.

Professor Gardner co-founded the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Nevada in 1984 and served as its director from 1990 to 1993.

In 1965, he encouraged psychology student Roger Fouts to begin demonstrating, as part of his doctoral dissertation, that Washoe’s communication skills approached the level of young human children.

But the Gardners concluded that the only way to correlate the monkey’s developmental abilities with those of children would be to create a comparable environment and treat their simian subjects as if they were foster children.

The Gardners published their first results in the journal Science in 1967 and presented them to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York.

In 1974, Washoe was featured in the PBS science series “Nova”. In 1989, the Gardners published the book “Teaching Sign Language to Chimpanzees”. In 1998, three years after his wife’s death, Professor Gardner published another collaboration, “The Structure of Learning: From Sign Stimuli to Sign Language”.

Washoe lived with the Gardners until about the age of 5, then moved to the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. She died in 2007 at the age of 42.


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