Savage Grace

Originally published in Google Think

Savage-Rumbaugh and bonobo Teco

For more than half her life, 64-year-old Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has waged a tireless campaign to break the language barrier separating humans from bonobos – great apes native to the Congo, and with which humans share 98% of their genetic makeup. Her work has taken her from the language department at Georgia State University to Iowa’s Great Ape Trust, and has made celebrities of her most famous charges – Kanzi and Panbanisha, whose abilities to drive golf carts and play Pac-Man have garnered them millions of views on YouTube. But it’s the more serious issue of ending the linguistic isolation of our ‘lost brothers’ that concerns Savage-Rumbaugh – this year named one of Time’s 100 most influential people – and it’s a subject that has made her a figure of considerable controversy, both for those who deem apes incapable of anything beyond mimicry, and those determined to maintain a human dominion over the linguistic world.


“People are very unsettled by apes, and understandably so. That’s one of the reasons a movie like Planet Of The Apes can be so successful: we fear the beast part of ourselves, and for a long time that was something we projected on to primitive people. Then ethnographers went to live with indigenous people and said: wait, they’re like us, they just have a different culture. The same is true of apes: apes can recognise themselves in mirrors, they can draw, they have a sense of creativity and a reflective notion of ‘self’ similar to humans. No matter how intelligent a dog or a monkey is, they don’t demonstrate that same intelligence. So one has to ask: if we’re going to draw the line between humans and animals, then shouldn’t apes be on the side with humans, and the rest of the animal kingdom on the other?

Right now the only real barrier is one of communication. Bonobos communicate at a higher frequency, and the transition between their consonants and vowels is very difficult for us to hear. We use a program that converts human speech into lexigrams that bonobos understand and use to type back via a touch screen; if we could change the parameters so that it recognised bonobo vocalisations that were repetitive – when they make multiple attempts to say ‘apple’, for example – then we would have an application allowing for running translations of what they say to us and vice versa, and at that point there’s no reason why our two cultures shouldn’t co-exist.

I’m not looking to achieve what you might call racial integration, just for apes to be treated with dignity and respect. But it’s not only apes that we’ve kept in the closet: it’s the same with mentally handicapped children, for example. Anyone with whom we can’t adequately communicate doesn’t sit properly in human society. And there’s a great reward for people who make time to break down those barriers, because individuals who haven’t conformed to society often have a capacity to love without qualification or condition. I feel we could learn so much from each other: we’re both limping along as injured species, and if we could put the best of both of us together, we could be superhuman.”