Washoe, the first chimpanzee ever taught American Sign Language, passed away on Tuesday night. An amazing creature, she was born in 1965 in West Africa, where she was captured by the Air Force. She was brought to the United States, initially for research use in the space program, but after less than a year in the program, she took up residence with two scientists, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, who raised and treated her as a deaf human child; during her lifetime, she mastered the use of more than 250 signs and taught them to other chimpanzees. The NY Times said "by age 5 she had mastered enough signs to capture the world’s attention and set off a debate over nonhuman primates’ ability to learn human language that continues to this day." She died in bed at age 42, of natural causes, surrounded by staff members and other primates who had been close to her. More details about her life and tributes can be seen at the Friends of Washoe website.
Just several weeks ago, the world also lost another star, Alex, the talking grey parrot. Alex, who served as an inspirational model for the character "Gerard" in Michael Crichton's novel Next, was able to identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, 5 shapes, quantities up to and including 6 and a zero-like concept. Below is a video interview with Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who trained and studied him for three decades. More details about Alex's life and tributes can be seen at The Alex Foundation website.
What both Washoe and Alex did for us in the field of biomedical ethics was to force us re-examine our attitudes towards our selves and towards the other inhabitants of the planet that we share. Washoe and Alex helped us recognize that the lines between 'human' and 'nonhuman' are not so brightly drawn -- that we are interconnected and interdependent and that drawing these separations is an illusion. In the words of Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow, and without trees we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either...
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the tree cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger's father and mother are in it too...
You cannot point out one thing that is not here -- time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper... As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.
[From The Heart of Understanding Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988, pages 3-5.]
Alex and Washoe, by virtue of who they were, extended invitations to those of us in the human sphere to enlarge our moral universes -- An invitation which many of us have gratefully accepted. May they Rest In Peace.