Washoe, pioneer in signing chimpanzees, dead at 42

November 1, 2007

News from Central Washington University in Ellensburg tells of the death of Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language (ASL), the matriarch of a small clan of signing chimps who pushed the boundaries on our view of the intelligence of animals, especially the other great apes besides humans.

Washoe, undated photo from Central Washington University Washoe was named after Washoe County, Nevada, the home of the University of Nevada – Reno, where she was taken in 1966 after being captured in Africa as an infant.

Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language in a research project in Nevada, had been living on Central Washington University’s Ellensburg campus since 1980. Her keepers said she had a vocabulary of about 250 words, although critics contended Washoe and some other primates learned to imitate sign language, but did not develop true language skills.

She died Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the campus. She was born in Africa about 1965.

Between Washoe and her progeny, extended family and students (she taught signing to several others of her species) and the more famous Koko, the gorilla who speaks ASL, our ideas of the learning ability of animals, their achievements dramatically challenged our ideas about the moral sense of animals, and the uniform and universal superiority of humans.

Fouts and the researchers at the University of Nevada raised several chimps who were taught ASL. One of the more interesting, to me, and genuinely thought-provoking stories was of one young chimp who attended church with her human family. She asked questions about church, and eventually asked to be be baptized (the local cleric performed the rite). This is a Rubicon of great import to creationists, and I have yet to find one who isn’t inflamed or enraged by the story one way or another.

Roger Fouts lovingly described Washoe’s life and accomplishments in Next of Kin (including the baptism story). Fouts defends the rights of chimpanzees, His accounts of the life of research chimpanzees trouble anyone with a moral sense. This book troubled me when I first read it almost a decade ago, and I find it still haunts me any time I visit a display of animals, in a zoo, aquarium, or even at a wildlife preserve (I have not been to a circus since I read the book, coincidentally).

Just wait until cetaceans and cephalopods figure out how to use ASL.

Further reading and resources:

Chemistry: No fun if nothing explodes

November 1, 2007

Our house had two or three of the things around from my three older brothers — you know, the old Gilbert or Chemcraft chemistry sets, complete with potentially dangerous chemicals, test tubes, an alcohol lamp, a couple of beakers and stands, and instructions for how to make cool reactions with warnings about not making things explode.

chemistry glassware with colored water

We all made things explode, of course. That’s the fun stuff. Making jellied alcohol was fun, too — older brother Wes did that at Halloween, as I recall, the better to make a flaming hand (once was enough, thanks). We didn’t worry so much about the poisonous qualities of hydrogen sulfide, as we did worry about how to claim somebody else was suffering from flatulence when we made it. The kits and their metal boxes were in poor repair by the time I got around to them, but other kids in the neighborhood had new ones, and we always had the labs at the junior high and high school, which were stocked with enough dangerous stuff to keep us on the edge of blowing up the school, we thought (probably incorrectly).

One sign of laboratory experience: The acid holes in the Levi jeans. Older son Kenny recently discovered these things still happen in a lab at college. It had never occurred to him to worry about it before — one of his favorite t-shirts, too. (Holes in clothes appear not to be the fashion statement they were for his parents . . .)

12 Angry Men laments the wussification of these old chemistry sets. No danger anymore, he says.

Someone in comments claims you can still get the dangerous stuff.

But someone else claims such kits may be illegal under Homeland Security and DEA rules. Heck, they say even Erlenmeyer flasks are illegal in Texas. They used to be very popular among the secretaries in the biology department because they made such fine vases for the single-stemmed flowers their grad-student admirers could afford. Gotta see what’s up with that.

Technology changes so you can’t get it anymore.

But, kids with solid chemistry experience make more money in the real world — especially chemical engineers. Here’s a Catch-22: Kids can make more money if they have the experience to get the job, but they can’t get the experience until they get the job.

Update, November 1:  The PBS/Wired Science segment on kids doing chemistry, and chemistry sets

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