The Strange World of Koko, Kanzi, and the Decline of Ape Language Research
A long, sometimes disturbing, “where are they now” article about the various apes that people have tried to teach language. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning, but the whole article is pretty fascinating if you’ve ever wondered why we mostly stopped hearing about ape language research after the 1970s and 80s:
Koko is perhaps the most famous product of an ambitious field of research, one that sought from the outset to examine whether apes and humans could communicate. In dozens of studies, scientists raised apes with humans and attempted to teach them language. Dedicated researchers brought apes like Koko into their homes or turned their labs into home-like environments where people and apes could play together and try, often awkwardly, to understand each other. The researchers made these apes the center of their lives.
But the research didn’t deliver on its promise. No new studies have been launched in years, and the old ones are fizzling out. A behind-the-scenes look at what remains of this research today reveals a surprisingly dramatic world of lawsuits, mass resignations, and dysfunctional relationships between humans and apes. Employees at these famed research organizations have mostly kept quiet over the years, fearing retaliation from the organizations or lawsuits for violating nondisclosure agreements. But some are now willing to speak out, and their stories offer a troubling window onto the world of talking apes.