On the books of Michael Crichton

Primate Behavior and Misbehavior in Michael Crichton's Congo

By Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D.

As every business executive knows only too well, good ideas can generate a lot of money. Bad ideas sometimes generate money too, but usually at the expense of someone else. Here is an idea: let’s teach chimpanzees and gorillas human language and take them back to the jungle so that they can serve as interpreters for other apes and help us understand Mother Nature’s secrets. This seemed like a good idea when it first crossed people’s minds about 100 years ago, but turned out to be a bad one. Nevertheless, this idea generated a lot of money for some folks: the researchers who obtained millions of dollars from the U.S. government to attempt to teach language to apes, and Michael Crichton, who used it to write Congo and made huge profits from the sales of his book and its movie rights. In the end, this business venture was arguably more legitimate for Michael Crichton than for the ape language researchers. Congo is an excellent book in its genre, its success was fully justified, and the folks who spent a few bucks to read it probably thought that their investment was well worth it (the movie Congo sucked, but that’s another story). Chimpanzees and gorillas, however, have never learned to speak English, we’ve never had any intellectual conversations with wild apes, and even if one day we figured out a way to talk with them, i’m not sure we would learn anything interesting about Mother Nature that we don’t already know. If anything, we could probably teach the apes a few things about themselves that they don’t know—assuming that they would care to listen, which I strongly doubt. Although we have learned some interesting things from our unsuccessful attempts to teach spoken English to the apes here in the U.S., many folks these days believe that the millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money invested in this research could have been used to build new schools instead.

In writing Congo, Michael Crichton did his homework well and researched the history of ape language studies. His telling of the story is pretty accurate, although a few bits and pieces are missing here and there. Somewhere in one of Congo’s early chapters, Crichton mentions Keith and Kathy hayes, the Florida couple who in the early 1950s raised a chimpanzee infant named vicky at home with them. He doesn’t mention that another husband and wife research team—the Kelloggs—had tried the same thing a few years earlier, and raised an infant chimp named Gua at home along with their own son donald. In some psychology textbooks, one can find hilarious photos taken by the Kelloggs, which show Gua and donald holding hands and wearing the same pajamas before going to bed. Both the hayeses and the Kelloggs tried to teach spoken English to their infant chimpanzees. To understand why they thought this was a good idea, one needs to know that ape language research began during the heyday of behaviorism, a particular brand of psychology that maintains that behavior—human or animal—is the product of the environment and that almost anything can be taught to anybody. Raise an ape in a home in the suburbs and it will turn into a person. Speak to them in English and, at some point, they will speak back to you, just like every child does. Well, neither Gua nor vicky ever spoke back to their foster parents. Chimpanzees and other apes simply don’t have the right vocal cords to produce sounds like human speech, and even if they did, they could never learn to speak English fluently, or any other human language. Many aspects of human behavior—including language, according to the linguist Noam chomsky and his followers—are not learned but genetically inherited. Other behaviors are learned from the environment, but we probably have strong genetic predispositions to learn them the way we do. The same goes for the behavior of other animals, of course. Raise a young chimpanzee in a home in the suburbs and the result will be a screwed-up chimpanzee, not a human. And if you have seen the film American Beauty, you know that human children raised in those homes may turn out to be pretty screwed-up too.

After the failures to teach spoken English to Gua and vicky, other folks used different strategies, for example, teaching apes sign language, or communicating with them using symbols on a keyboard. Crichton mentions the names of some of these famous apes: the chimpanzees Washoe, Lana, Sarah, and Nim chimpsky (an obvious joke on Noam chomsky), and Koko the gorilla. He forgot chantek the orangutan, but made up for it by inventing the names and stories of many other language-trained apes. Too bad Congo was written before the most extraordinary talking ape of all times—Kanzi the bonobo—en-tered this unusual hall of fame. In fact, at the time he wrote Congo, Crichton didn’t seem to know that bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees— another African ape species similar to chimpanzees—even existed. Although bonobos were discovered in 1928, in Congo we read that there are only two species of African apes: chimpanzees and gorillas.

One thing Crichton seemed to know that I didn’t is that the U.S. Air Force began funding ape language research in the 1960s as part of a secret project called Contour. This project—according to Crichton—involved the development of strategies to be used in case of contact with alien life forms from outer space. Teaching apes language and taking them back into the field to serve as interpreters was viewed by U.S. Air Force strategists as a stepping stone toward the future use of these primates as intergalactic ambassadors. Why take any chances trying to establish conversations with potentially hostile aliens equipped with head-chopping light sabers when chimpanzees and gorillas could be sent out there on the starship Enterprise to negotiate with the aliens on our behalf? Sounds reasonable to me, although animal rights activists would probably object to this use of our ape cousins. Since it’s true that NASA and the U.S. Air Force gave some researchers a lot of money to teach monkeys and apes computer video games that simulated piloting war jets and launching missiles (another project that wouldn’t get the stamp of approval of animal rights activists, i’m afraid), I wouldn’t be surprised if NASA also funded projects preparing close encounters of the third kind between apes and aliens. As for this specific Contour project mentioned by Crichton, i’ve never heard of it. An internet search using the Google engine revealed that NASA indeed had a project called Contour, but this project involved the use of a remotely guided spacecraft—and not gorillas—for the exploration of comets. Moreover, this project was launched in 2002—long after Congo’s first edition (1980). But maybe this project had a secret component we don’t know about, which was inspired by Crichton and his book. When he wrote Congo, Crichton was certainly optimistic about the future outcomes of ape language research. He predicts that in the near future signing apes will be called to testify in court during custody cases involving themselves or their fellow primates. That hasn’t happened yet and probably never will. Crichton was more accurate in predicting the invention of the internet: in Congo, he predicts that by the year 1990 there will be one billion computers linked by communication networks to other computers around the globe.

In any case, Congo tells the story of a gorilla named Amy, who has been taught American Sign Language and is taken back to her native jungle in central Africa in hopes that she will communicate with the local apes. To make the story even more interesting than the Contour-funded projects, the local apes Amy is supposed to talk with are not peaceful leaf-eating mountain gorillas but a new species of gorilla, who like to kill people by crushing their skulls with hard rocks. And the purpose of the folks who accompany Amy on this trip to Africa is not to discover Mother Nature’s secrets, but to find the lost city of Zinj and its precious diamonds.

As in real life, the ape language project fails. When Amy finally meets the murderous gorillas, they don’t care to learn American Sign Language from her and she can’t speak their invented language, made of wheezing sounds and hand gestures “delivered with outstretched arms in a graceful way, rather like Thai dancers.” She comes to understand enough of the gorilla language, however, to allow her trainer and mentor—fearless primatologist Peter Elliot—to put together and broadcast over the airwaves a message for the gorillas. So, when the apes are about to kill everybody, Elliot in particular, all of a sudden they hear loudspeakers emitting wheezing sounds meaning “Go away. No come. Bad here.” That’s enough for them to stop, turn around, and walk back home. Good for Elliot and his buddies that the gorillas are bottom-line kind of guys, who don’t care much about syntax. Amy saves Elliot’s life one more time by hugging him and pretending that he’s her child while he is under attack by the gorilla killing-machines. Apparently, these gorillas are smart enough to figure out how to deactivate a computer-controlled, laser-equipped defense perimeter put up around our heroes’ camp, but so dumb that they buy into Amy’s pathetic little act.

So, if the future of humankind had to depend on Amy’s negotiations with hostile aliens who were about to blast our planet from the universe with their laser cannons, I wouldn’t be too optimistic. She couldn’t even communicate with dumb gorillas who smash people’s heads with rocks. Who needs ape extra-galactic ambassadors, however, if what Crichton writes in Congo is true—that a guy named Seamans at the University of California at Berkeley had developed a computer program named ApE—it stands for Animal pattern Explanation—ca-pable of “observing” Amy and assigning meaning to her signs? Since, Crichton argues, the ApE program utilized declassified army software subroutines for code-breaking and was capable of identifying and translating new signs, “there was no reason why it would not work with an entirely new language,” whether this be animal, human, or alien. No need for extragalactic ambassadors, then. When the mean aliens come and start waving their arms ominously at us, let’s have the ApE program figure out exactly what they are saying and help us deliver our response to their threats of global annihilation: “Go away. No come. Bad here.”

Unfortunately, this Seamans guy and his magical language software existed only in Crichton’s imagination. In Congo, Crichton mentions many real scientists’ names and describes their research pretty accurately, but he mixes them up with invented characters all the time, and it’s not easy to tell who’s real and who isn’t. To complicate things, he sometimes uses the name of a real scientist, for example, rumbaugh— a well-known ape language researcher—for a character he invented. Crichton especially likes to report quotes from scientists making extraordinary claims. Take this one for example: “in 1975, the mathematician S. L. Berensky reviewed the literature on primate language and reached a startling conclusion. ‘There is no doubt,’ he announced, ‘that primates are far superior in intelligence to man.’” A Google search for “S. L. Berensky” produced some interesting results. The first hit is a russian Web site where you can read the whole Congo book online— so much for copyright laws. Most of the other hits are porn internet sites in which sentences lifted from well-known books are mixed with mumbo-jumbo text, commercial ads, and links to other porn sites. Apparently, the word combination “S. L. Berensky reviewed” is very popular among e-mail spammers: if you check your own mailbox, you might find messages that have it as their subject title, and offer you a penile enlargement procedure at a bargain price. Needless to say, there is no trace of the real mathematician S. L. Berensky on the internet, or of his primate language studies and their startling conclusions. This other quote found in Congo almost fooled me until I noticed a pattern in the names of the experts Crichton likes to cite: “L. S. Verinsky once said that if alien visitors watched italians speaking, they would conclude that italian was basically a gestural sign language, with sounds added for emphasis only.” Again, a Google internet search did not produce any traces of L. S. Verinsky or his linguistic wisdom.

Clearly, while researching his material for Congo, Crichton must have talked with a lot of researchers and maybe even attended a couple of scientific meetings. Otherwise, how would he know that biologists who study animal behavior like to wear jeans and plaid lumberjack shirts at their conferences? And I am not sure whom he talked with, but he certainly came away with a pretty cynical view of scientists and their world, especially when it comes to funding for their research. In Congo, Peter Elliot is described as a skilled grantsman, “someone who had long ago grown comfortable with situations where other peo-ple’s money and his own motivations did not exactly coincide.. . . A researcher promised anything to get his money.” Crichton also seems to have issues with cocktail parties attended by scientists in houston. When Amy the gorilla first meets Karen ross, the beautiful but coldhearted computer expert on the team, “she went directly to her, sniffed her crotch, and examined her minutely.” ross minimizes the incident to Elliot by saying to him, “it was just like any cocktail party in houston. I was being checked out by another woman.” Somehow, crotch-sniffing doesn’t seem to happen at the cocktail parties for scientists i’ve been to.

As for the behavior of gorillas and other nonhuman primates, Crichton knows a lot about that too. Here are some examples of the primate behavior facts you find in Congo: Gorillas like to make their own nest every night and sleep in them. When mountain gorilla silverback males attack an intruder, they go through a typical behavioral sequence including grunting, sideways movement, slapping, tearing up grass, beating chest, and charging. Male baboons often end their fights when one male grabs an infant and clutches it to his chest; the presence of the infant inhibits further aggression from the other male. Monkeys and apes spend a lot of time grooming each other to reduce tension. Chimpanzees in cages like to throw their feces at people, whereas gorillas like to eat them. Wild chimpanzees use twigs for fishing insects out of their nests, and youngsters learn fishing skills from their mothers in the course of observations and practice sessions that last several years. Chimpanzees are more aggressive and more into dominance hierarchies than gorillas, and more dangerous to people. Crichton also mentions that chimpanzees pose a threat to human children, so that when Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees at Gombe National park in Tanzania, she had to lock away her own infant to prevent his being taken and killed by the chimps. I’ve heard these stories too. The statement that chimpanzees occasionally kidnap and eat human infants, however, seems a little exaggerated.

The accuracy of Crichton’s understanding and description of nonhuman primates and their behavior begins to break down when he talks about their cognitive skills. For example, in the context of describing chimpanzees’ termite-fishing skills, Elliot/Crichton confidently states that conspecific teaching is quite common among primates. He cites as an example the female chimpanzee Washoe who supposedly taught American Sign Language to her infant son Loulis. Yes, i’ve read that too, but because no real data were ever presented about Washoe’s presumed lessons to Loulis—just somebody’s anecdotal observations—i don’t believe it. Crichton goes on to claim that language-skilled primates freely teach other animals in captivity: “They also taught people, signing slowly and repeatedly until the stupid uneducated human person got the point.” Another jab at scientists, perhaps? Judging from the way Amy behaves in Congo, one would have to assume that gorillas and other apes have the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors and to imitate other individuals’ actions. For example, at some point in the book, Amy uses a mirror to put lipstick on, and she buckles her seat belt in a car after observing how people do it. In reality, whether primates have a true sense of self and can imitate others’ actions is still being debated in scientific circles. If anything, studies have shown that chimpanzees can learn how to use a mirror to wipe something off their forehead or clean their teeth, but gorillas seem to have a lot more trouble doing it. Although this in no way implies that gorillas are dumber than chimpanzees, Crichton’s statement that “Now there was abundant evidence from field and laboratory studies that the gorilla was in many ways brighter than the chimpanzee” is certainly not warranted either.

Crichton definitely goes overboard on the issues of primate dreams and their understanding of time. In Congo, we learn that Amy was the first primate to report dreams. We are told that a manuscript written by Elliot and titled “dream Behavior in a Mountain Gorilla” was submitted for publication and reviewed by three experts but never accepted for publication. We are not told what the reason for the rejection was, but it may have had something to do with Elliot’s explanation that gorilla dreams represent a form of genetic memory, which, in Amy’s case, brought back to her mind images of the jungle in which she and her fellow gorillas were born and brought up, and that had become somehow encoded in her DNA. Elliot finds help from Freud in explaining Amy’s dreams. He concludes that the dream protected Amy from a situation that had to be changed, but that Amy felt powerless to alter, especially considering whatever infantile memories remained from the traumatic death of her mother. Just like behaviorism, Freud is not so popular among psychologists these days.

In Congo, we also learn that Amy distinguishes past, present, and future because she remembers previous events and anticipates future promises. So far so good: every animal on the planet with a brain larger than a single neuron can do that. Here comes the tricky part, though. According to Elliot/Crichton, Amy’s behavior seemed to indicate that she conceived of the past as in front of her—because she could see it—and the future behind her—because it was still invisible. Therefore, whenever she was impatient for the promised arrival of a friend, she repeatedly looked over her shoulder, even if she was facing the door. Now, ThAT is an original, bold, and imaginative suggestion. If that were true, it would explain why so many mountain gorillas die when they get shot at by poachers in central Africa. When they see a human in front of them pointing a gun and taking aim at them, instead of looking ahead and trying to dodge the bullet, they turn around and look over their shoulder. No wonder they are on the brink of extinction!

Aside from this gem, the discussion of Amy’s intelligence in Congo is generally less interesting than the description of her misbehavior. Clearly, Crichton seems to like bad girls’ behavior and makes sure Amy has it all. In addition to drinking martinis and champagne, smoking cigarettes (but only to relax), and sniffing women’s crotches, Amy swears too. The way she does it is she first signs the name of the person she wants to insult—Peter, for example—and then taps the undersides of her chin—the sign commonly used to communicate the need to go to the potty. Crichton/Elliot remarks that primate investigators were under no illusions about what the animals really meant in these circumstances: Amy was saying Peter is shitty. Crichton goes on to confidently inform his readers that nearly all language-trained apes swore. According to him, “at least eight primates in different laboratories had independently settled on the clenched-fist to signify extreme displeasure, and the only reason this remarkable coincidence hadn’t been written up was that no investigator was willing to try and explain it. It seemed to prove that apes, like people, found bodily excretions suitable terms to express denigration and anger.”

Well, Michael Crichton, you certainly got one thing right: there haven’t been any scholarly publications reporting on the swearing behavior of language-trained apes. As for the story about the evolution of the ape clenched-fist gesture, I find that hard to believe. If you had claimed, however, that after having been put through the ordeal of trying to learn language for all these years, apes in different laboratories had independently learned how to give their trainers the finger, I might have believed you.

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