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.  …

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