How NOT to raise an ape in your family

Carrie McLaren is a guest blogger at Boing Boing and coauthor of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, the former home of her now defunct Stay Free! magazine.

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I collect books by people who have raised apes in their homes. One of the first, The Ape and the Child, was written in by behaviorist W.N. Kellogg, a man with a peculiar brainstorm: that he should raise a chimpanzee as a twin to his own infant son, treating them in exactly the same fashion, and comparing their development. Kellogg was fascinated by case studies of feral children: if kids raised by wolves become wolf-like, he hypothesized, could a human such as he mold an ape to act human?

Kellogg made four films of his studies and 1 of those films is now online.

Results? Mixed. The chimp, Gua, took more quickly to her civilizing education than her brother. She appeared smarter, stronger, and more emotionally developed on a number of counts: she was better at using glasses and silverware, walked earlier (chimps generally don't walk upright), responded to verbal commands sooner, and was more cooperative and obedient.

What we don't learn from Kellogg's study, however, is that chimps' "domestication" peaks around age 2, when humans' surpass them. And the reason we don't learn that is because Kellogg discontinued his study when his charges were around 2. Kellogg explained that he had accomplished his goal: he proved that environment matters. After all, you don't see a lot of chimps eating cereal from a spoon in the wild.

But Kellogg's claim was a bit disingenuous. The fact that environment shapes animal development was already well understood. The real reason he abruptly halted the study, then, was likely because of results that Kellogg never anticipated: his son Donald started imitating the chimp.

For example, though Donald had learned to walk before Gua joined the Kellogg family, he regressed and started crawling more, in tune with Gua. He'd bite people, fetch small objects with his mouth, and chewed up a shoe. More importantly, his language skills were delayed. At 19 months, Donald's vocabulary consisted of three words. Instead of talking he would grunt and make chimp sounds.

Gua got sent back to the Yerkes center in Florida, where she promptly died. And Donald? Not much is known of his life, but, at 43, he committed suicide.

This study got a lot of press when it was published, but Kellogg ended up deeply regreting it -- not because of what it did to his son, but because it prevented him from being taken seriously as a scientist.

Variations on this study were conducted repeatedly through the 20th century. There were a number of cases of people attempting to raise chimps in their homes as humans, and perhaps I'll write more about those later. But, to the best of my knowledge, no one ever used a human infant as a guinea pig again.

Sources:

The Ape and the Child by W. N. Kellogg and L.A. Kellogg, New York: Whittlesay House, McGraw-Hill, 1933

The Ape and the Child (W.N. Kellogg page at FSU)

Comparative Tests on Human and a Chimpanzee... (1932) (Archive.org)

I previously gave a talk on this as part of my Brooklyn-based lecture series, Adult Ed.

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  1. The film is a little horrifying by the end. I used to take a class with Birute Galdikas and she would often look for students to watch her kids. They behaved much like orangutans, with whom they lived in Borneo for most of the year. They were highly skilled climbers and much louder than the average child. It was an unspoken rule- never offer to babysit the Galdikas kids!

  2. That’s really quite tragic in the end!

    I live near Chester Zoo in the UK- and by complete coincidence once came across a book about one of the Chester zoo keepers who raised a chimp in her home with her children comparing development. It was called er…LITTLE BROTHER (good title :-)) and was by June Johns and published 1970 – and just looked and there are a couple on Amazon co.uk if you’re interested (and haven’t come across it already).

    She had to let the chimp go because it got too big and difficult to handle, I think…

  3. That’s really interesting but sad and tragic in the end!

    I live near Chester Zoo in the UK- and by complete coincidence once came across a book about one of the Chester zoo keepers who raised a chimp in her home with her children comparing development. It was called er…LITTLE BROTHER (good title :-)) and was by June Johns and published 1970 – and just looked and there are a couple on Amazon co.uk if you’re interested (and haven’t come across it already).

    She had to let the chimp go because it got too big and difficult to handle, I think…

  4. Meanwhile, millions of lonely people, for the most part without advanced degrees in psychology or biology, are unknowingly conducting parallel experiments on kittens and puppies, attempting to raise them as if they were human children. So far, no success.

  5. As an undergraduate psychology major I practically lived in the Kellogg research building at Florida State. A case was set up in honor of him with some instruments he used. He was really quite a fascinating individual – Winthrop Niles Kellogg also studied echolocation in porpoises…and humans. It turns out that humans deaf from birth can differentiate not only glass from denim, but denim from velvet. “…denim cloth and velvet were differentiated 86.5% of the time.”

    http://www.psy.fsu.edu//history/wnk/

  6. No vladis, I suspect he meant deaf. As in able to differentiate the echo returning from glass vs denim vs velvet. I thing even I could tell them apart by touch.

    As for the nature/nurture debate. My understanding is that it shouldn’t even be put in those terms. It’s too simplistic. It goes both ways and your genes select the environment in which to express themselves.

  7. “I collect books by people who have raised apes in their homes.”

    –Boy if I had a dollar for every time I heard THAT.

  8. It’s ironic that despite the research acknowledging the emotional and affective abilities of the chimp, the poor thing still ended up being discarded like a mere tool. After being doted on like a human child by human ‘parents’, it was probably extremely distressing for Gua to adapt to different circumstances. No wonder she died soon after.

    I also wonder what effect it had on Donald to see his ‘sister’ abandoned in this fashion. This is not like losing a pet: They shared formative years together, as peers.

    I think this study’s most striking result is that even while closely studying emotion and intelligence for years, some humans can be totally out of touch from either.

  9. One day Kellog took both chimp and child out into the garden where there was an old-fashioned but functioning water pump. As he guided little Donald’s hand into the stream of water, he said “Water.”

    “Wa-Wa,” the boy said.

    Then he did the same with the little chimp. “Water,” Kellog said.

    The chimp got wet.

  10. Stamp out Behaviorism in our lifetime, I say.

    Unconscionably abusive, both to the child and the chimp. I bet a list of Behaviorists who never did anything terrible to their children is identical to a list of childless Behaviorists.

  11. Shades of Tarzan!

    So, human children really do become more ape-like if raised with ape siblings. I guess Burroughs knew what he was talking about after all! ;-)

  12. After studying and sketching chimps at the Portland Zoo for a few days, my son and I wrote and illustrated a picture book for children called *The Boy Who Went Ape*. It was not a scientific endeavor, but we did key in on our inner apes. One chimp in particular, Delilah, was my age at the time (57) and would pose for me as I did quick charcoal studies, she was then curious to see the resulting pictures. I always have mixed feelings about animals in captivity. We learn about them. They on the other hand are fed and safe, but have lost their freedom.

  13. For a more positive take on the same scientific impulse, I recommend Next of Kin by Roger Fouts; he spent 30 years raising, teaching and communicating with Washoe via ASL.

  14. You will be sad to here that a young elephant passed away at Chester Zoo after developing a virus. We were down on holiday from Scotland, staying at one of the Ramada hotels in Chester, when we had taken the kids to the Zoo as a holiday treat – but me and my partner over heard the news, poor thing. The kids did not know anything so they had a great time. Apart from that I would still recommend the Zoo to anyone who loves animals.

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