– NIM CHIMPSKY, 1970s
– BRITNEY SPEARS, 2007
The plane had yet to take off, but Osgood, the photographer, was already snoring softly. He was in the center seat, wedged between John Thigpen and a woman in coffee-colored stockings and sensible shoes. He listed heavily toward the latter, who, having already made a great point of lowering the armrest, was progressively becoming one with the wall. Osgood was blissfully unaware. John glanced at him with a pang of envy; their editor at
John’s knees did not fit within his allotted space, so he turned them outward into the aisle. Because Cat was behind him, reclining his seat was not an option. He was well aware of her mood. She had an entire row to herself- an unbelievable stroke of luck-but she had just asked the flight attendant for two gins and a tonic. Apparently having three seats to herself was not enough to offset the trauma of having spent her day poring over linguistics texts when she had been expecting to meet six great apes. Although she’d tried to disguise the symptoms of her cold ahead of time and explain away the residual as allergies, Isabel Duncan, the scientist who had greeted them, sussed her out immediately and banished her to the Linguistics Department. Cat had turned on her legendary charm, which she reserved for only the most dire of circumstances, but Isabel had been like Teflon. Bonobos and humans share 98.7 percent of their DNA, she’d said, which makes them susceptible to the same viruses. She couldn’t risk exposing them, particularly as one was pregnant. Besides, the Linguistics Department had fascinating new data on the bonobos’ vocalizations. And so a disappointed, sick, and frustrated Cat spent the afternoon at Blake Hall hearing about the dynamic shape and movement of tongues while John and Osgood visited the apes.
“You were behind glass anyway, right?” Cat complained in the taxi afterward. She was crammed between John and Osgood, both of whom kept their heads turned toward their respective windows in a futile attempt to avoid germs. “I don’t see how I could have given them anything from behind glass. I would have stood at the back of the room if she’d asked me. Hell, I’d have worn a gas mask.” She paused to snort Afrin up both nostrils and then honked mightily into a tissue. “Do you have any idea what I went through today?” she continued. “Their lingo is completely incomprehensible. I was already in trouble at ‘discourse.’ Next thing I knew it was ‘declarative illocutionary point’ this, ‘deontic modality’ that, blah blah blah.” She emphasized the “blahs” with her hands, waving the Afrin bottle in one and the crumpled tissue in the other. “I almost lost it on ‘rank lexical relation.’ Sounds like a smelly, overly chatty uncle, doesn’t it? How on earth do they think I’m going to be able to work that into a newspaper piece?”
John and Osgood exchanged a silent, relieved glance when they got their seat assignments for the trip home. John didn’t know Osgood’s take on today’s experience-they hadn’t had a moment alone-but for John, something massive had shifted.
He’d had a two-way conversation with great apes. He’d spoken to them in English, and they’d responded using American Sign Language, all the more remarkable because it meant they were competent in two human languages. One of the apes, Bonzi, arguably knew three: she was able to communicate by computer using a specially designed set of lexigrams. John also hadn’t realized the complexity of their native tongue-during the visit, the bonobos had clearly demonstrated their ability to vocalize specific information, such as flavors of yogurt and locations of hidden objects, even when unable to see each other. He’d looked into their eyes and recognized without a shadow of a doubt that sentient, intelligent beings were looking back. It was entirely different from peering into a zoo enclosure, and it changed his comprehension of the world in such a profound way he could not yet articulate it.
Being cleared by Isabel Duncan was only the first step in getting inside the apes’ living quarters. After Cat’s banishment to Blake Hall, Osgood and John were taken into an administrative office to wait while the apes were consulted. John had been told ahead of time that the bonobos had final say over who came into their home, and also that they’d been known to be fickle: over the past two years, they’d allowed in only about half of their would-be visitors. Knowing this, John had stacked his odds as much as possible. He researched the bonobos’ tastes online and bought a backpack for each, which he stuffed with favorite foods and toys-bouncy balls, fleece blankets, xylophones, Mr. Potato Heads, snacks, and anything else he thought they might find amusing. Then he emailed Isabel Duncan and asked her to tell the bonobos he was bringing surprises. Despite his efforts, John found that his forehead was beaded with sweat by the time Isabel returned from the consultation and informed him that not only were the apes allowing Osgood and him to come in, they were insisting.
She led them into the observation area, which was separated from the apes by a glass partition. She took the backpacks, disappeared into a hallway, reappeared on the other side of the glass, and handed them to the apes. John and Osgood stood watching as the bonobos unpacked their gifts. John was so close to the partition his nose and forehead were touching it. He’d almost forgotten it was there, so when the M &M’s surfaced and Bonzi leapt up to kiss him through the glass, he nearly fell backward.
Although John already knew that the bonobos’ preferences varied (for example, he knew Mbongo’s favorite food was green onions and that Sam loved pears), he was surprised by how distinct, how differentiated, how almost