Chimps, children’s books, horny psychology professors, and shoddy theories in linguistics.
It’s a recipe for disaster.
The recent documentary Project Nim details the story of researchers attempting to discover whether or not a chimp can learn human language. Chimps, armadillos, aardvarks, and marmokrebs are not going to learn human language anymore than we are going to learn the language of marmokrebs, aardvarks, armadillos and chimps if by learning their language we assume we are capable of seeing what they see (and I don’t mean that in terms of eye-sight). Obviously, all of these creatures have language. Granted, they may not think of it the way we think of it as we are the ones defining the, well, language of language, and, therefore, what we envision constitutes language (which is then projected back unto them). Any conversations around the definition of language are going to be rigged from the outset; compromised at the beginning.
Nim learned how to do what he needed to do in order to gain food, water, and attention. Perhaps we can agree with Wittgenstein who would have suggested that Nim learned “how to go on.” Nim learned what he needed to do in order to survive. At the same time, we have yet to understand Wittgenstein’s adage that “if a lion could talk we could not understand him.” We have no basis for the forms of life, the very grammar that is constitutive of the language of a lion (or, in this case, a chimp), and without it, without understanding the parameters that constitute their language, we cannot see what they see and, therefore, say what they say.
My editor protested that the story was incomprehensible.
“Well, if the reader doesn’t catch any of the thirty-plus allusions to Western philosophy,” I countered, “then you’re probably right. And, therefore, they shouldn’t understand it.”
I had erred in thinking that my readers do, on occasion, actually read.
“But even if you do catch them,” my wonderful and lovely editor protested, “the story remains unintelligible. If I can’t understand its meaning how the hell do you expect kids to understand it?”
I told her that was the point. My book, from the outset, is horribly flawed. Admittedly so. It’s about animals, as depicted in one of the world’s most influential books (for good and/or bad) the Bible, yet attempts to narrate the stories from the perspective of the animals. Which is, of course, impossible. So, I just used it as an excuse to subtly push my animal-friendly and rather misanthropic propaganda on my readers (all eleven of you). But I admit that my project is a terrible exercise in ethology. Which is kind of why I had to write it–especially the particular story in question. Its incomprehensibility is one of its most redeeming features.
And that’s why it makes sense.
And that’s why Nim got the short end of the anthropocentric (yard)stick.
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.