Book review – “Primatology, Ethics and Trauma”, by Robert Ingersoll and Antonina Anna Scarnà
posted in 03 Oct 2023

Between the 1960s and 1980s, sign language researches were carried out with chimpanzees, mainly in Universities at United States. The most famous cases are those of the chimpanzees Washoe and Nim Chimpsky.

Although these studies have brought to light important facts about the abilities and intelligence of chimpanzees, some scientists have argued that they are inconclusive, questioning their scientific value and, above all, the psychic and traumatic impact caused to the “guinea pig” chimpanzees. They would live in a limbo between being treated like humans in one period and being kept in laboratories in others, generating various ethical implications.

These reflections, analyses and controversies are dealt with in the book “Primatology, Ethics and Trauma”, by Robert Ingersoll @nimchimpsky73 and Antonina Anna Scarnà @anna.scarna, in a very realistic and powerful way, as our contributor Alyson Baker @shiretane reports in her review.


Review by Alyson Baker*

“The language work in chimpanzees is pseudoscience. It offers little in the way of validating any aspect of language function.” Antonina Anna Scarnà is a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Primatology, Ethics and Trauma is her passionate denial of there being any worth in the chimpanzee American Sign Language (ASL) studies of the 1970s–early 1980s, and her explaining her view that those studies were cruel and traumatising for the chimpanzees.

Scarnà argues that many of the young researchers were themselves vulnerable due to their youth and the turbulent times they were living in, but: “At least at the end of the experimental day the humans were able to get in their cars and to go home.” Robert Ingersoll worked with the chimpanzees at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies (IPS). He was deeply disturbed by what he witnessed, and he has worked ever since on projects to move chimpanzees who were used as research subjects into sanctuaries – many of them had ended up in medical research facilities. His story is woven through the book.

The bulk of Primatology, Ethics and Trauma concerns the science of trauma in humans, and of language acquisition in human children. It is a difficult read, both because of the story it tells and the way that story is told.  It is rather messily organised, quite repetitive, and at the end it ranges widely off the topic of the ASL research chimpanzees. But for all that it is an extremely powerful read, exposing the dark side of the use and treatment of the ASL research chimpanzees. Scarnà argues that they all suffered from complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

The ASL studies have often been written about in terms of their success or otherwise concerning chimpanzee language acquisition. Also often cited are moving reports of interactions between various chimpanzees and their human caregivers. There has also been writing about the neglectful way the chimpanzees were managed once the ASL research funding ran out – including subsequent carers being instructed not to sign with the chimpanzees, for example, Eugene Linden’s book Silent Partners.

Primatology, Ethics and Trauma presents another, quite different view from these accounts of what the chimpanzees were experiencing – pointing out how the research itself was further traumatising already traumatised chimpanzees. As an example, the experience of Washoe is examined. There have been several accounts written focusing on Washoe – one of the ‘stars’ of the research. In Primatology, Ethics and Trauma, Washoe’s story is awful, with a comment from Ingersoll illustrative of one particular situation: “One night my decision was to smoke weed with Washoe, because I thought she was going to kill the baby.”

Washoe did end up killing her baby Sequoya. As disturbing as it is to read of this behaviour, it is equally upsetting to read of the sloppy management of the situation, the on-the-fly decision making, and the human motivations for some of the choices made.

Scarnà notes that for both humans and chimpanzees, personality traits play a key role in how they respond to stress, and the chimpanzees were under constant stress. They were all individuals with different ways of trying to cope, and with only the resources allowed them by their captors. The character of each chimpanzee affected how they experienced the research. Whereas Washoe was an introvert, happy to work alone on projects, Nim, another of the ‘stars’ of the research, was an extrovert who was characterised as liking “fast cars, smoking and alcohol”.

Different chimpanzees had also come into the research programme by very different channels. Washoe was taken from her forest home in an unnamed country in West Africa, her mother killed in front of her. She was initially captured for the U.S. Airforce for their chimpanzee research, but she was fostered by a human family (Allen and Beatrix Gardner) for ASL research. When she was five, Washoe was moved to the Oklahoma IPS programme, run by Roger and Deborah Fouts. In contrast, Nim was bred into captivity, and an early carer would gently talk to him every night before sleep: “Nim was accessible, charming and fun. Washoe was not fun. She was scary.”

Herb Terrance was the leading researcher on Project Nim, and Scarnà observes: “Terrance and the other researchers grossly underestimated the linguistic abilities of the chimpanzees, and also the impact of each chimpanzee’s respective life history on language abilities. A broken child can produce broken language only. A traumatised being will produce traumatised capabilities only.”

Scarnà cites works discussing how human language acquisition is an activity embedded in healthy community interactions with “more knowledgeable members of society” – a situation not available to captive chimpanzees, especially those cross-fostered into human families. She criticises those linguistics experts who claim the chimpanzees ‘failed’ at ASL: “let us not forget that these were traumatised animals. […] It is likely they were not demonstrating it to their true ability, just as anxious children do not perform to capacity.”

Scarnà also makes several other points regarding the ASL studies. She notes that chimpanzees have their own language, so ASL would have been their second language. The linguistic analysis of the studies was technically flawed. ASL does not follow the sentence structure of English, and none of the researchers were fluent in ASL.

The research purported to be about the origins of human language acquisition, but: “The researchers failed to address the biggest scientific flaw in their studies: that any language produced by these chimpanzees would only represent language learning by a chimpanzee in captivity and would therefore be irrelevant to models of normal human language processing.”

Aside from the problems with the nominal purpose, and methodology, of the research, are those to do with the social treatment of the chimpanzees. They “were double victims. First because they were stolen from their families, and second by being thrust into the human world and expected to learn human processes.” Scarnà questions the ethics of the expectations placed on the chimpanzees, when they had no possibility of their achieving what was expected: “If something as simple as walks were prohibited in [sic] the chimpanzees, what chance did they have for any of their other needs to be met for adequate learning?”

Scarnà also stresses the importance of a primary caregiver on emotional stability and learning ability, and she describes how the chimpanzees had a constantly changing series of carers, “Infants are not blank slates to be passed around caregivers”. “The animals were given a script for experiences, in the absence of the right people with whom to express them.”

And behind all this, there were ongoing conflicts between two of the primary researchers, Roger Fouts and Bill Lemmon, founder of the IPS. Their disagreements led to Fouts leaving the IPS and moving some of the chimpanzees to a third-floor laboratory in the Central Washington University, Ellensburg, where “some of them never got to touch grass again”.

Whilst careful to say she is not apportioning blame, what amazes Scarnà is that none of these problems were considered by those starting the language programmes. There had been lots of research by then on primates, such as infant rhesus monkeys, showing how isolation from a mother or others can have totally devastating and debilitating results on social primates. Or that having decided to carry out the research, the programme design again took no notice of relevant information about social primates. Scarnà quotes student Ron Helterbrand “The sad things is you raise these chimps like humans, and then you go and put them in a cage”.

Primatology, Ethics and Trauma is a harrowing and chaotic read, containing some very disturbing sections. I think it is an important read, in showing the human capacity for the abuse of chimpanzees. It is easy to say that the research took place in a different time, but there were people at that time who recognised that these research projects were not ethical.

The book includes the stories of some of the chimpanzees, and some of the humans who worked, and continue to work, to help them. And it mentions some better models of research studying language in wild chimpanzees. These are interesting, but I would have appreciated the inclusion of how our responsibilities to chimpanzees generally can be fulfilled in an ethical manner, and more detail around how traumatised chimpanzees could be helped in sanctuaries. For, even for those lucky enough to reach a sanctuary, “that’s always our problem, that no matter what, you can’t give them freedom”.

* Alyson Baker lives in Whakatū Nelson, Aotearoa New Zealand. She volunteered at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Uganda in 2017, and returned in 2018 when she also went chimp tracking in Kibale National Park. Alyson is planning on going back to Ngamba this year, after a planned trip in 2020 was cancelled due to Covid-19. In 2021 Alyson completed an MA looking at our moral responsibilities to chimpanzees and she is currently working on a PhD regarding moral motivation and working on behalf of chimpanzees.