Workshop takes transdisciplinary approach to great ape communication

How have systems of communication evolved among the great apes? How did language arise? How can humans and apes best communicate? On Oct. 20-21, Cornell will host a trans-disciplinary workshop on apes, language and communication to explore these and other questions. “The Eloquence of the Apes” will feature renowned primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Cornell researchers across multiple disciplines. The conference, to be held in the A.D. White House, is free and the public is invited.

“Our goal is to open up a new space for intense conversation between humanists, social scientists, and scientists,” says organizer Laurent Dubreuil, professor of Romance studies and comparative literature and affiliate of the Cognitive Science Program. “The emerging fields of ‘post-humanities’ and ‘animal studies’ are engaged in a wide re-assessment of sciences and technologies, while  many new and exciting developments at the crossroads of the sciences are currently re-interpreting the diverse facets of human (and animal) culture that have traditionally been explored by the humanities.”

Savage-Rumbaugh has used computerized means to give chimpanzees and bonobos access to symbolic culture and human language. Her work has been called both controversial and groundbreaking, and has garnered her many accolades, including two honorary degrees and an inclusion in the 2011 list of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.” 

The workshop sessions will be divided into three themes: evolution and origin of communication in human and non-human primates, what language brings to apes, and the apes and the humanists. Cornell presenters include Dubreuil, Professor of Psychology Morten Christiansen, Kenan Professor Emerita of Psychology Barbara Finlay, Rhodes Professor in the Humanities Cathy Caruth, and Associate Professor of German Studies Peter Gilgen.

In connection with the workshop, Dubreuil and Christiansen are co-teaching a class this fall that they see as “a path toward the creation of a new field at the interface of different modes of inquiry,’ titled Cognition, Culture, and the Humanities. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first class ever to be cross-listed in Neurobiology and Behavior, Comparative Literature, Psychology, and Cognitive Science at Cornell and maybe elsewhere,” notes Dubreuil. 

On October 20, in a prelude to the workshop, a video screening followed by a roundtable discussion will present the recent donation to the Cornell Division of Rare Books & Manuscripts by Savage-Rumbaugh of more than three hundred hours of video files archiving the experiments she conducted with apes from the late 1970s to the late 1990s.

Eloquence of the Apes is sponsored by the Society for the Humanities; the Departments of Romance Studies, Psychology and Comparative Literature; the Cognitive Science Program, the College of Arts & Sciences; and the Rhodes Professorship in the Humanities, with additional help from the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection and the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

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