Comparative psychologists study how animals interact, hoping to find out
more about human beings in the process. Although the field deals with much
of the animal kingdom, the most intensive research has focused on the great
apes, such as chimpanzees.
Years ago, researchers from around the world went to the Chimpanzee and
Human Communication Institute in Washington to watch chimpanzees "speak" in
American sign language.
It was a follow-up project to the successful training program that taught
chimp Washoe to use 132 words in ASL.
Roger Fouts, who was part of the original program, now runs the Washington
chimpanzees' project, where four chimps -- including Washoe -- live. In his
book, Next of Kin, Fouts says the fact that apes can learn to sign probably
means that early human ancestors did the same.
Chances to find out more about how children acquire language skills as
they grow up are endless, he argues, noting that his research has already
been used to help children with autism and cerebral palsy.
Irene Pepperberg was initially inspired by studies on chimpanzees during
the '70s. However, she thought that a focus on primates was too narrow and
believed in the communicative capabilities of birds. She continues to study
and train African gray parrots with great success.
The incredible feeling that comes from original discovery is still strong
for Pepperberg. "It's fascinating when you design an experiment to see whether
or not they can do something, and it turns out that they can. This creature's
brain is the size of a walnut and yet he can do things comparable to that
of a chimpanzee's."