R. Allen Gardner, who taught chimpanzees to sign, died at the age of 91

E.The thologian Robert Allen Gardner, famous for his work with a chimpanzee named Washoe in the late 1960s, died on August 20 at the Reno ranch, where much of his research was being conducted. He and his wife were best known for teaching sign language to chimpanzees. He was 91.

Gardner was born on February 21, 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. An obituary from the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) said his parents worked for a smuggler during Prohibition. As a baby, his mother and father brought him with them for births because a nice, young family together would not arouse suspicion. According to the obituary, Gardner was pleased to tell friends the story of his early criminal life.

Gardner graduated from New York University in 1950 with a degree in linguistics and a doctorate in psychology from Northwestern University in 1954. He then spent some time in the US Army and taught at Wellesley College. Gardner married the zoologist Beatrix “Trixie” Tugendhut in 1961 and in 1963 took up a position at the UNR. In 1984 Gardner co-founded the UNR Center for Advanced Studies and was its director from 1990 to 1993. In 2010 he retired as professor emeritus.

Although they did not have children of their own, the Gardners were foster parents to young chimpanzees. Their efforts to teach American sign language to chimpanzees would bring the couple international fame and transform conversation through nonhuman primates’ communication.

In 1966, the Gardners took in Washoe, who was about 10 months old at the time and came to the United States via the US Air Force. According to his obituary in the Reno Gazette Journal, Allen and Trixie presented their results at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the following year. The Gardners held Washoe for nearly five years and claimed to have taught her more than 130 characters. Over the years, they also taught four other chimpanzees to sign.

See “speech chimpanzee dies”

An archived version of his UNR faculty page states that Gardner’s work focused on the “effects of raising young chimpanzees to be human children,” particularly on intelligence, social development and language. His research was based on the notion that chimpanzees would not learn in sterile laboratory settings; The animals could only learn real communication in a family environment.

The Gardner’s claims that the chimpanzees learned the language under their care have received some criticism over the years. Critics argue that the nonhuman primates were simply conditioned to signal food rewards. “There was no spontaneity, no real application of grammar,” said Columbia University cognitive psychologist Herbert Terrace The New York Times 2007 after Washoe’s death. Other researchers say the team’s monkeys learned to communicate; Duane Rumbaugh, a retired scientist with the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, described the Gardners’ 2007 chimpanzee research as “absolutely groundbreaking work.” Times reported.

Gardner was preceded in death by Trixie, his younger brother, and Washoe in 1995.

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