Ilya V. Utekhin

European University at St.Petersburg, Russia


Early Ape Language Research projects from 1960-70s conducted by Gardners, Premack, Patterson, Rambough, Savage-Rambough, and Terrace demonstrated that apes are able to employ arbitrary symbols and use them in communication with human experimenters in face-to-face communication or in mediated communication involving computer keypads. Data on the communicative abilities of apes exposed to language teaching were supposed to contribute to comparative psychology as well as evolutionary and developmental biology: the studies were aimed at demonstrating the cognitive and linguistic abilities of captive apes beyond that which can be observed in their natural habitat, and at providing insights about the early stages of the emergence of language. However, the obtained results and interpretations were criticized by those scholars who offered more parsimonious explanations of the observed behaviors of the apes and emphasized the contribution of the human partner to the interaction with the animal. The critics regarded ape language experiments within the framework of a long history of smart animals that could demonstrate exceptional abilities in a performance based on unconscious cueing by the human experimenter. This discussion—sometimes referred to as the “chimp-language wars”—is important for two reasons: firstly, it questions the ways in which human-like communicative behaviors can be interpreted. Secondly, it concerns the scholarly status of activities that involve mind-reading and ascribing quasi-human characteristics to non-human beings, and thus challenges the limits of humanity.


Keywords: ape language studies, communication, experiment design, cueing, Clever Hans phenomenon