One of the best reasons to join a book club is to read books you would never find on your own.
When Sue Osterman picked "Next of Kin" (1997) by Roger Fouts as the selection for our book group a couple of months ago, I inwardly groaned and thought, "Oh, a dry scientific book about chimpanzees." I was so wrong. "Next of Kin" is the most amazing book I have read in a long time. I have just finished rereading it and found it even more interesting.
This autobiographical story tracks Roger Fouts' career. He starts as a graduate student in experimental psychology and becomes a world authority on chimpanzee communication and behavior. The book begins in 1966 in Reno, Nev.,where Roger has a graduate assistantship to work on a cross-fostering experiment with a young chimpanzee named Washoe. Two psychology professors, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, are raising Washoe as a human child and teaching her sign language. Fouts becomes Washoe's lifelong caretaker and friend and travels with her as she is moved from university to university. After learning that captive chimps cannot be returned successfully to Africa, he tries to find a refuge that will protect her against a system that views her as an unfeeling piece of property.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the biography of Washoe and the other four chimps that form Washoe's family. The reader follows the life of Washoe as she grows from a mischievous chimp wearing diapers to the matriarch to her adopted family.
You get to see how chimps learn, how they feel about people and how they feel about things happening in their lives, since they are able to communicate with humans via sign language.
Roger "inherits" three more signing chimps, Tatu, Dar and Moja, from the Gardners, because the chimps become too difficult for them to handle. Washoe adopted Loulis, the fourth chimp, as a baby and taught Loulis to use sign language without human intervention.
What is most amazing is the different personality traits that each of the chimps exhibit.
As Washoe's story unfolds, Fouts explains the scientific theories and concepts that underlie his research. The book explores how humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor 6 million years ago. The similarities between humans and chimpanzees, particularly in their behavior and language acquisition, are explained in clear, easy-to-understand language. Did our language begin with the gestural system of our ape ancestors and evolve to the complex mode of spoken language that we use today?
Fouts has studied the connections between chimp and human communication for the past 30 years. By comparing Washoe's behavior in captivity with both the behavior of wild chimpanzees and with autistic children, Fouts leads readers through the scientific theories of language acquisition while entertaining us with the chimps' stories.
The book is also a call to political action to become an active advocate for the humane treatment and protection of captive chimpanzees. Since the 1960s when scientists discovered that chimpanzees were our genetic next of kin, medical researchers have viewed chimps as the next best thing to human subjects. After learning that chimpanzees are social, intelligent, and feeling animals, one has to wonder about the ethics of letting them be used in cruel and inhuman experiments. Fouts visits various research centers and describes the isolated conditions that are the fate of chimps that are used for biomedical research. He also lists several organizations that are working to create sanctuaries for the approximately 1,000 chimpanzees currently languishing in laboratories in the United States.
The most exciting thing you learn in the book is that Fouts found a sanctuary for Washoe and her family right here in Washington State. In 1980, Central Washington University in Ellensburg gave Fouts the freedom to create and develop the environment he was hoping to find for the chimps. The result is The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI), a facility where the chimps are protected from invasive research and maintained in a safe, healthy and interesting environment that includes both indoor and outdoor areas. CHCI offers one-hour "Chimposiums" that are open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from March through November at the cost of $11 per adult and $8.50 per students. Chimposiums feature slide shows and lectures about Project Washoe and guided observations of the three remaining chimps in Washoe's family. All proceeds from the Chimposiums go to the care and well-being of the chimpanzees. For further information about the institute, go to www.cwu.edu/~cwuchci or www.friendsofwashoe.org or call (509) 963-2244 for reservations.