Imagine we found an alien species that shared more than 97% of its genes with humans, but used a communication system unintelligible to us. We would spend considerable time and energy trying to figure out what that species was “saying.” As the primatologist Irven DeVore once said, this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in, but the species is on our own planet; it’s the bonobo, living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Scientists have spent decades teaching bonobos some version of our own language, but few have ever investigated bonobos’ natural communication in the wild. This is precisely what my research aims to accomplish.
Bonobo vocalizations may sound like so many shrieks, screams, peeps, and wails. The bonobos themselves, however, do not treat these vocalizations as mere outbursts of excitement; they respond to subtly different calls with radically different behaviors. A “high hoot”—the bonobos’ long distance vocalization—may cause a bonobo that hears it to either approach, retreat, or do nothing. At present, we do not understand why a bonobo responds with different behaviors to similar vocalizations. Through observation, recording and analyzing their vocalizations, and experiments in the field, my project will tell us about the way in which bonobos produce and interpret vocalizations. When a bonobo produces a “high hoot”, what is that bonobo saying? Is she conveying information intentionally? When a bonobo hears a vocalization, what does she think?
Language is one of the defining characteristics of humans. And while we may be able to talk, we still can’t explain how humans came to possess this exceptional ability and how, exactly, it is different from other forms of communication in the animal kingdom. We know about many of language’s components—the ability to represent and understand symbols, knowledge of grammatical rules about word order, and a baby’s ability to imitate sounds, for example. But we know embarrassingly little about these components in non-humans. Unanswered questions include the extent to which apes in the wild, untutored by humans, use symbolic communication and whether or not they can modify the structure of their vocalization to change the meaning of the call. Because of this lack of information, we cannot say with much precision what distinguishes language from the communication of our closest primate relatives.
I have secured funding for my own travel expenses and research fees, but now need to raise money cover the costs of an assistant. The help of an assistant is essential to the success of this project because aspects of the research are impossible to carry out alone. For example, in order to understand bonobo "conversations" that take place over hundreds of meters it is necessary to observe both bonobos involved in the interaction. Such observation requires two people conducting simultaneous observations. Your money will allow me to hire an assistant for six months. The money will be put towards research fees that pay for the running of the field site including food, lodging, solar panels, research equipment such as GPS and binoculars, communication infrastructure such as satellite phones and email connection, and compensation paid to the local village for use of their forest.
Reconstruction of evolution of language and insight into a non-human mind.
Would you rather be a dolphin or maple syrup? My six-year-old self put that question to my family. Dolphins led happy, playful lives but ran the risk, I had recently learned, of getting caught in tuna nets. Maple syrup faced no threats from fisherman, but seemed to have less opportunity for splish-spashy fun. The query reflected my nascent, if naïve, fascination with nonhuman experiences in the natural world. The curiosity behind my early existential inquiry has evolved. I’m no longer drawn to the nature of a certain tree sap, but I am still interested in the experience of animals--specifically nonhuman primates. My interest is two-fold: to understand what the world looks like from their perspective and to use that information to understand the human condition.
I am currently pursuing these interests as a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Before entering graduate school, I studied history at Haverford College and worked as field assistant in Costa Rica, Congo, and Ecuador.