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Ape language pioneer Savage-Rumbaugh receives honorary Ph.D. from alma mater
Date:5/27/2008

Des Moines, Iowa May 22, 2008 Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Scientist With Special Standing at Great Ape Trust of Iowa and a pioneer in the field of ape language and cognition studies, recently received the eighth honorary doctor of science degree conferred in the 103-year history of her alma mater, Missouri State University at Springfield.

Savage-Rumbaugh, an internationally known primatologist and experimental psychologist who demonstrated that through early rearing experiences, bonobos and chimpanzees can comprehend spoken English and simple grammar, is a native of Springfield. She said the honorary degree from Missouri State University Southwest Missouri State College when she received her bachelor of arts in psychology degree in 1970 is especially significant because it was there that she was recommended for and received a prestigious Woodrow Wilson Fellowship that would change not only her research focus, but her life as well.

Eager to study under the influential behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, Savage-Rumbaugh applied to and was accepted to Harvard University, but some administrative changes in the fellowship put Harvard out of her reach financially. She was looking at other institutions that would allow her to expand her research interest in cognitive development in children when she discovered the "Chimp Farm," or the Institute for Primate Studies, at the University of Oklahoma, where research was conducted to refute the notion that the acquisition of language is unique to humans.

"At the time, no one thought any creature had any symbolic capacity," Savage-Rumbaugh said. "The best results come from studying a phenomenon from all different angles, and this changed my research focus to include cognitive development in non-human primates. Experimental psychology was focused on pigeons and rats at the time, and it was not going to take us where we needed to go. We needed to include great apes."

In her remarks to graduates of her alma mater, Savage-Rumbaugh said that when she received her bachelors degree from MSU 38 years ago, she entered a field the study of whether great apes can acquire language that didnt exist until 1979 and has become mired in debate and has yet to make its full impact felt. The inquiry matters for many reasons, Savage-Rumbaugh said, and importantly, has forced humans to contemplate the true meaning of language.

"Was it just words and grammar, or fundamentally something much deeper"" she said. "Did we require the capacity to reason in order to have language" Or in acquiring language from our culture, did we also acquire the capacity to reason, to think and finally to assume moral responsibility for all of our actions" Did language enable us to become cultural beings, or was it culture itself that enabled us to acquire language"" Great Ape Trust of Iowa

Ape language studies also have exposed what may be flaws in the distinction between humans and animals, she said. The natural world is divided into four categories man, animal, vegetable and mineral but the more scientists learn about and understand great apes, "the more we find our old categories falling into ruin."

"We now know that we share with some apes nearly 99 percent of our DNA," she said. "We are, in fact, really a genera of five great apes, related in the following order from most distant to nearest: orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo and human being. Even more puzzling to us is this fact: Chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to us than they are to the other great apes, the gorilla and the orangutan.

"Thus, if genes matter and they do then how do we justify the categories man and animal when there are two species of animals living on the planet that are more like us than they are like any other living animal"" she said. "Such scientific findings have thrown our old simplistic categories into a state of confusion. The field of ape language presses that confusion further and harder still."

Savage-Rumbaugh received her master of science and doctorate degrees from the University of Oklahoma, the latter in 1975, and went on to a storied career. As the first scientist to conduct language studies with bonobos, her work has redefined the boundaries between human and nonhuman primates, and has contributed greatly to the understanding of how humans think, learn and use language.

The honorary degree from Missouri State University was the second conferred upon Savage-Rumbaugh in recognition of her stellar career. The University of Chicago also conferred an honorary doctor of science degree in 1997 in recognition of the contributions of her research with bonobos and chimpanzees to education, conservation and the formulation of principles that have been applied to language-challenged children and young adults.

She joined Great Ape Trust in 2005 after a 30-year association with Georgia State Universitys Language Research Center, where her initial research involved a collaboration with two young chimpanzees, Sherman and Austin, which laid the experimental and philosophical foundation for her future work with bonobos, including Kanzi and his half sister, Panbanisha.

Savage-Rumbaugh retired as director of bonobo research in 2007 and assumed the position of Scientist with Special Standing, a designation Great Ape Trust founder Ted Townsend said recognizes her extraordinary contributions to ape language research. In her new role, she continues to do research with the bonobos at Great Ape Trust while expanding her research into other areas.

Selected excerpts from Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's acceptance speech: "I went into a field that was never anticipated at the time I graduated, a field that only came into existence in 1969, and a field that quickly became mired in debate. It is a field that has yet to make its true impact felt around the world, the field that came to be called 'ape language.'

"What is ape language and why does it matter" It is the study of whether or not our closest living relatives, the great apes, can acquire language. Why does it matter" It matters for many reasons, the first of which is that it has forced humans to actually try and determine what language really was. Was it just words and grammar, or fundamentally something much deeper" Did we require the capacity to reason in order for us to have language" Or in acquiring language from our culture, did we also acquire the capacity to reason, to think and finally to assume moral responsibility for all of our actions" Did language enable us to become cultural beings, or was it culture itself that enabled us to acquire language"

"Second, it matters because we divide our categories of our natural world into those of man, animal, vegetable and mineral. Man is the singular creature with reason, rights and morality. Animals are creatures that lack these capacities and can therefore be bought and sold as property, farmed and manufactured as 'products' just as can objects, minerals, etc.

"Man was credited with the capacities of reason and morality because he had language and because he makes the tools. These became objects which he sold and traded as commodities. If animals were to have language and were to make tools if they were found to reason and think and to express their intentions, plans and goals, could we continue to trade them as commodities"

"By dividing the world into four categories of things man, animal, vegetable, mineral we thus determined how we should treat that world in which we lived. We make it natural or "common sense" to conclude that anything non-man should fall into a different class of things and, therefore, justifiably be treated differently than ourselves. Categories matter.

"But our man/animal distinction may be fatally flawed. The more scientists come to learn and understand the great apes, the more we find our old categories falling into ruin. We now know that we share with some apes nearly 99 percent of our DNA, the code all living beings utilize to pass bodily form from one generation to the next. We are, in fact, really a genera of five great apes, related in the following order from most distant to nearest: orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo, and human being.

"Even more puzzling to us is this fact: Chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to us than they are to the other great apes, the gorilla and the orangutan.

"Thus, if genes matter, and they do, then do how do we justify the categories 'man' and 'animal' when there are two species of animals living on the planet today that are genetically more like us than they are like any other living animal" Such scientific findings have thrown our old simplistic categories into a state of confusion. The field of 'ape language' presses that confusion further and harder still.

"What if we learned that bonobos and chimpanzees, the apes most like us, could speak, reason, make tools and had codes of morality" Should we admit them into the realm of humankind" Or should we now make five categories: humans, nonhumans with human abilities, all other animals, vegetables, and minerals"

"Ape language is on the way to changing the categorical divide of Man versus Animal. As this barrier falls, it will necessarily be followed by deep changes in all other aspects of our daily lives. Because this has been a fundamental category in our minds for so very long, we cannot predict the outcomes, but they have the potential to stagger the mind. They will bring about a seismic shift, equivalent to 7 or 8 on the Rictor scale. All lesser prejudices will quickly fall, and humanity will begin to understand, in a scientific way, what it means, and what it requires, to make a human mind."


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Contact: Al Setka
asetka@greatapetrust.org
515-243-3580
Great Ape Trust of Iowa
Source:Eurekalert  

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