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A pioneering and controversial figure in the nature-versus-nurture debate died this past week at the age of 42. Her name was Washoe, and she was a chimp - a chimpanzee. The scientists who worked with her say they taught Washoe to communicate using American Sign Language.
NPR's Dan Charles has more.
DAN CHARLES: Washoe was born in West Africa in 1965. As an infant, she was captured and sold to the U.S. military which used chimpanzees for medical experiments.
But two scientists - Allen and Beatrix Gardner - took Washoe home with them to Reno, Nevada. And for several years, they and a small team of helpers lived with Washoe, played with Washoe and talked to Washoe using American Sign language. Deborah Fouts was part of that team.
Ms. DEBORAH FOUTS (Director, Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute): Nobody taught her. They just signed around her. Her signs were all acquired with the way our children acquire other language, either vocal or sign.
CHARLES: And Washoe did learn. Within a few years, he picked up more than a hundred different signs and used them spontaneously to express herself.
Ms. FOUTS: She was a very competent conversation partner. So when she was in Reno, we talked about, you know, the things that babies talk about - going potty and about, you know, having different meals and climbing trees.
CHARLES: Deborah Fouts and her husband, Roger, stayed with Washoe for 40 years, moving with her to the University of Oklahoma and then to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. Fouts says the Washoe experiment became an eye-opening link between two species.
Ms. FOUTS: I'm a human being. She was a non-human being. But because we shared a language, because we both could use American Sign Language and because so many people that have met her could use American Sign Language, it broke down the barriers between our species.
CHARLES: Other scientists weren't convinced that Washoe really did use language as humans do. In the 1970s, some of them carried out a similar experiment with another chimp named Nim Chimpsky and concluded that even though Washoe and Nim Chimpsky could be trained to communicate using signs, that communication didn't have the structure, flexibility or creativity of human language.
This week though, one of the researchers who worked most closely with Nim Chimpsky, Laura-Ann Petitto, said that the two experiments weren't really competitors.
Professor LAURA-ANN PETITTO (Psychology, Dartmouth College): We were a team. We were pioneers. We were in it together.
CHARLES: And together, they were trying to answer some grand questions, Petitto says. What is language? How do we learn it? Is it something that's hardwired into the human brain?
Prof. PETITTO: Or is all human language entirely learnable from environmental input? These were the essential questions that involved who we are and are we alone on this planet.
CHARLES: When Nim Chimpsky died several years ago, Petitto says, she was startled by how emotional she became. The chimp was in an unfamiliar category. Not a pet, not a child - something else that still brought on feelings of attachment and loss.
Deborah Fouts, now director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University says Washoe was very much of part of her family. She is mourning Washoe, just as she mourned the death of her niece last year. There's a memorial plan for November 12.
Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.
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