In a podcast series on the highly visible and often controversial efforts to teach gorillas and chimpanzees to learn sign language, Arielle Duhaime-Ross and colleagues reviewed the history of Project Koko, started in the 1970s by a young psychologist named Penny Patterson who claimed to have taught a gorilla named Koko to learn more than 1,000 signs. Koko became world-famous, with her picture on the cover of National Geographic, but designing language isn’t straightforward and critics suggested that Koko was simply being prompted by her trainers' unconscious cues to display specific signs. Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University, launched a rival ape language experiment with a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky. But Terrace eventually ended his project after concluding that Nim’s signing wasn’t spontaneous and that his teachers had inadvertently prompted him. Nim was unable to use words conversationally, let alone form sentences, Terrace told an interviewer. Duhaime-Ross notes that new efforts are underway to understand how animals might be able to communicate with humans and, more importantly, how they communicate among themselves. Judge Alexandra Witze, a freelance science journalist, called the VICE entry an “evocative exploration of whether and how animals can communicate across species, enhanced by storytelling and audio production that bring a fairly well-known historical era of science to modern audiences.” Tony Bartelme, senior projects reporter for The Post and Gazette in Charleston, S.C., called the series “a fascinating tale about language and how human assumptions affect science.” He said it “represents a powerful intersection between science and journalism that brings both a sense of authority and intimacy to the pieces. I couldn’t wait for the next episode.” Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Vice News science correspondent, said: “When we decided to examine the ape language studies of the 1970s, we did so with genuine curiosity. What we found was that when humans look at other animals, it’s nearly impossible for us to look at them through anything other than our very human lens. These studies therefore offer a window into the human desire to connect with other animals and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. It’s a great honor to have our work recognized in this way. Thank you to everyone who helped us make this series possible.” Duhaime-Ross is now a two-time winner of the AAAS Kavli award.
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