Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Alan Alda
For Educators
Previous Shows
Future Shows
Special Features

Chimps R Us

. .
3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

Duotone of Sally aBoysen and chimpDr. Boysen can't come to the phone right now. She's trying, but the clamoring students seeking her advice and the hooting chimps seeking her attention keep her from quite making it across her lab to the receiver. It's another day in the life of Sally Boysen, director of the Comparative Cognition Project at Ohio State University.
- - - - - - - - - - - -

An associate professor of psychology, Sally Boysen has spent her career peering into the minds of our closest cousins, the chimpanzees. Her findings show that chimpanzees can be taught some human-like cognitive skills that never manifest in the wild. Boysen has taught chimps to count and to subtract and she documented their ability to think abstractly. Her work, sometimes controversial, often sheds light on the way our own intelligence might have evolved.

Boysen began studying chimpanzees more than 25 years ago when she herself was a student at OSU. Long interested in animal studies, Boysen took a class in psycholinguistics in 1973.

"That was it," Boysen recalls. "The light bulb came on and there was no turning back."

One of five children, Boysen was born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio. A curious kid, she spent much of her youth in the stacks at the Sandusky public library where she quickly exhausted the children's section and became the youngest patron to hold an adult library card. Her mother, a teacher, encouraged her daughter's intellectual curiosity by spending what she could on books, allocating their somewhat limited funds to the World Book Encyclopedia, the lavish color pictures in which Sally Boysen still recalls vividly. Her father, director of a metallurgy lab, used to bring home chemicals and perform simple experiments in the basement. Today, this marriage of diligence and experimentation is the hallmark of Boysen's body of work.

In the Lab with Chimps

"There is even in science," says Boysen, "such reticence to have us be part of the Darwinian continuum."

Boysen tests chimps' ability to think abstractly; can they figure out what another chimp is thinking? Can they use language? Can they count? Her experiments show they can do all of these things.

In 1984, for example, she began teaching chimps to count.

"It took a couple of years for the chimps to have a good solid working counting repertoire," says Boysen. "But once our chimps had a basic understanding, they figured out about addition and subtraction spontaneously."

Photo of Boysen with chimp
Boysen and Sheeba get "rowdy" before the experiment.

In perhaps her most ambitious project to date, Boysen is currently teaching several animals to "read" and "write" using English letters and words. Among her students is 17-year-old Sheeba, who, in Boysen's care since the age of two, has experience with a wide variety of cognitive tasks. She also, says Boysen, seems to enjoy her schoolwork more than other chimps - animals with notoriously short attention spans. So far, she is doing very well with her reading and writing.

"We hope that, down the road, we can explore how the chimps view their social world by asking them, using their newly-acquired English vocabulary."

Boysen can't say for certain if her plan to talk to the animals will work. She can say, however, that it's often human ingenuity and patience that makes the difference, as in the experiment known as Big Room/Little Room. In this experiment, a researcher uses a scale model to show a chimp where a real object is hidden in a full-size room- a task human children can't grasp until age three (Sheeba showed off her talents in the segment Chimp Minds). Though all of Boysen's adult female chimps performed the task immediately, it took five years before researchers could motivate the adult males to complete the task correctly.

Take a look at this FRONTIERS' segment on Sally Boysen and Sheeba

According to Boysen, the males were perfectly able to grasp the concept of the scale room; they just needed more incentive- first to pay attention to the researcher, and second to perform the task at all.

"You know what they say," says Boysen. "Boys will be boys."

Boysen and her colleagues haven't had much luck with very young chimps of either sex. It's unclear whether they are too young, or simply too easily distracted, to catch on.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

return to show page


Chimps ObservedChimp NationsChimps Getting AlongChimp MindsChimps Under the Gun Teaching guide Science hotline video trailer Resources Contact Search Homepage Contact Search Homepage