Have you ever watched a toddler play with an iPhone?
Most likely, the child was completely captivated and surprisingly adept at manipulating the tiny icons. Two-year-old Teco is no different. Sitting with his Motorola Xoom tablet, he’s rapt, his dark eyes fixed on the images, fingers pecking away at the touch screen. He can’t speak, but with the aid of the tablet app I created for him, he’s building a vocabulary that will likely total several thousand words. What’s more, he’ll be able to string those words together into simple sentences and ask questions, tell jokes, and carry on conversations.
Such talents wouldn’t seem exceptional in a human child, but Teco is an ape—a bonobo, to be precise. To the uninitiated, bonobos look very much like chimpanzees, but they are in fact a separate species with distinct physical and behavioral traits. More collaborative and sociable than their chimp cousins, bonobos also seem to be more adept at learning human language. And they are endangered, found in the wild only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Recent estimates put the wild bonobo population at between 10 000 and 50 000. Fewer than 150 live in captivity. Along with the chimpanzee, they are our species’ closest relatives.
For more than three decades, researchers have been working with a small group of bonobos, including Teco, to explore their amazing cognitive and linguistic abilities. Teco’s father, Kanzi, is the group’s most famous member: Anderson Cooper has interviewed him, and he’s played piano with Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel. Animal lovers worldwide have marveled at his ability to communicate by pointing to abstract symbols. He recognizes nearly 500 of these “lexigrams,” which he uses to make requests, answer questions, and compose short sentences. The spoken words he understands number in the thousands.
Even so, many people question these abilities. Indeed, for more than a century scientists have debated whether apes could ever truly comprehend human language. Many researchers argue that language is the exclusive domain of humans, and several influential studies in the 1980s concluded that supposedly “talking” apes were merely demonstrating their capacity for imitation, with lots of unintentional cuing by the animals’ handlers. Linguist Noam Chomsky has likewise argued that the human brain contains a species-specific “language acquisition device,” which allows humans, and only humans, to acquire language.
But the bonobo research I’ve been involved with, led by primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh at the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary, in Des Moines, strongly suggests otherwise. Today, the wide availability of touch screens, tablet computers, digital recording, and wireless networking is giving researchers the world over powerful new ways to study and unambiguously document ape communication. The results of these studies are in turn helping to spark a renaissance of technology-aided research into primate development and cognition and shedding light on the origins of culture, language, tools, and intelligence.