Sunday 11 November 2012

Panbanisha Dies From A Common Cold: Sue Savage-Rumbaugh Has Much To Answer For

From Chimp Trainer's Daughter Nov. 7
Thanks to my extended family of facebook friends in anthropology, I was appalled to read of the death of Panbanisha, one of the two bonobos famous for learning what Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has all along called human language. The other, of course is Kanzi. Panbanisha was 27, still young for a member of her species. The 'official' word came from the deposed head of the Great Ape Trust, herself, Savage-Rumbaugh.
“Panbanisha failed to overcome the cold that all the Bonobos have been fighting. She was the most sensitive, the most creative, the most intelligent of all - she always sought the path of peace. Her Presence always filled the building. She understood all that was said and saw all that was done. Yet she could not speak as humans do - and therefore was misunderstood.

“I hope to rally the souls of the remaining bonobos so that they believe there really is a future worth living for. I hope to find a way to build a better world - a world in which those who have no voice and are unjustly persecuted - can begin to feel safe and honored, a world where the good no longer die young, a world where the Ann Franks of our time can come out of the cages and meet faces of friendliness and love.

“Panbanisha was never meant to live in a cage as she was always good and she understood responsibility and morality and had immense self control. Now she is free, free at last.” S. Savage-Rumbaugh (quoted in the
Without prejudice, and keeping in mind that there have as yet been no charges brought against Savage-Rumbaugh, I think it might be said that the above notice belies a human being with only a slender grasp of reality. Such at least has been the scuttlebutt for many years, even before her organization ceased doing serious research and became little more than a preserve for the animals that she had once exploited [yes, exploited] in the name of science. 
     You can only call it exploitation if the researcher in question, for example, believed that it was ethical and reasonable to separate bonobo young from their mothers and other relations so that they could be raised 'bi-culturally,' loosely analogous, I suppose, to being brought up by parents who speak two languages and derive from different cultures. But it is only loosely analogous, and more precisely could be termed playing fast and loose with ethical principles and the humane treatment of animals.
     And therein lies the crux of the whole affair. Savage-Rumbaugh and her ilk are at the heart of the segment of the learned community who have lobbied long and hard for a more enlightened [in their view] assessment of our fellow great apes. They have it that chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans are sufficiently like us bipedal apes as to be considered entitled to the same rights and privileges, legal and moral, as humans. I have always considered this stance to be wrong-headed, at best, and hopelessly misguided, at worst. I do not mean to say that the other great apes aren't worthy of our attention, our care and concern, or that they don't manifest extraordinary behavior and cognitive ability. But I have never bought into the notion that they are so like us as to be the equal of humans.
     I know that this position exposes me to accusations of speciesism [if that coined expression makes any sense at all], however there is nothing in the annals of great ape behaviour study that suggests to me any other conclusion but that humans are, uniquely, human. Here's why. Savage-Rumbaugh and others have long held that their captives are able to learn the rudiments of language. But there's an argument to be made that their subjects are simply learning a variety of new signs for things and actions that already formed their perceptual universe. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of creating the concept of a 'cognitive universe' and conveying the meaning  to other humans! The other great apes will never be so talented. You could say, of course, that many humans wouldn't be capable of conceptualizing such things, for example those with cognitive challenges or who are strictly speaking mentally ill. That misses the point. As a species, humans are capable of making meaning out of stones, and sounds, and pictograms, and anything else, and regularly assign meaning to different classes of objects on the basis of their meaning in a social hierarchy. Tell that to a chimp.
     I have a simple challenge for those who'd say that the other great apes are worthy of the label human. Once you have raised them in an early twenty-first century American middle-class cultural environment, once you have managed to teach them the difference between a hunk of beef tenderloin and a hunk of ground round, see how easy it is to teach them the difference in social status inherent in the two dietary choices. That, to me is a test of what it truly means to be human, regardless of whose cultural milieu. Humans in other cultures learn a different set of significances--such is the nature of human culture. The other great apes are incapable.
     To Sue Savage-Rumbaugh I say 'You have forever perverted the natural lives of the great apes in your trust. If you're even capable of realizing the harm you've done [and continue to do in their behalf] I hope that you'll live a long, remorse-filled, life.'
     Unfortunately, after reading her message to the world upon the death of Panbanisha, I can't be certain of that outcome.  


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  1. Sadly, her statement suggests some sort of quasi-scientific viewpoint that seems more in keeping with the bastardized experimenting of the Victorian era.

  2. Mike,
    Calling it quasi-scientific is being charitable. I'd be more inclined toward pseudo-scientific.


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