Aeon Video has a monthly newsletter!

Get curated editors’ picks, peeks behind the scenes, film recommendations and more.

People have been trying to talk with apes for nearly a century. How far have we got?

Since the early 20th century, a number of curious (and sometimes ethically dubious) psychological studies have tried to figure out if we can communicate with great apes using language. In the 1970s, the answer was reported to be an unequivocal ‘yes’ after Koko, a female western lowland gorilla, learned to sign at her handler, a graduate student at Stanford University, using a modified version of American Sign Language. But more recent critiques of the Koko studies (and others) dispute the idea that great apes have had truly meaningful two-way language communication with humans. This video from NPR’s Skunk Bear offers a brief survey of the history of ape-human communication research, suggesting that ‘Can we talk with them?’ might be the wrong question to ask.

Video by Skunk Bear

Producers: Ryan Kellman, Adam Cole

15 October 2018

Aeon is not-for-profit and free for everyone

Make a donation

Get Aeon straight to your inbox

Join our newsletter