By Fern Marder
Lifetime Achievement Awards are rare and precious – they are presented to just a few luminaries, and only after decades of dedicated and valuable service in their fields. So, when one of their own was bestowed with such a rare honor, the residents and staff of Evergreen Way in Parker at River Road threw a party to celebrate the achievement.
Duane M. Rumbaugh, PhD was honored at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association with a Lifetime Achievement Award that was accepted by his colleagues as Dr. Rumbaugh was unable to attend. A symposium at the convention was dedicated to his long-lasting and distinguished theoretical and empirical contributions to research in experimental psychology. Four of Dr. Rumbaugh’s colleagues gave inspiring talks about his incredible impact on the field and his legacy to psychology and science. As a tribute to his work, free copies of Duane Rumbaugh’s book, With Apes in Mind…So That Together We Might Learn, was offered to audience members in the symposium.
Dr. Rumbaugh is an internationally known comparative psychologist who studied the nature of learning and language processes of primates in relation to their brain development. In 1958, he began his career conducting research with the great apes at the San Diego Zoo and monkeys at San Diego State College. From 1971 until his retirement in 2000, Dr. Rumbaugh’s research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Science Foundation and NASA. During this time, he served as Chairman of the Psychology department and as Regents’ Professor of Psychology and Biology at Georgia State University.
In 1971, Dr. Rumbaugh began the Language ANAlog (LANA) project, where he taught a chimpanzee named Lana to comprehend symbols using an innovative analog computer-based keyboard. When Lana composed a sentence, the machine would reward her with the action or object of her request (e.g.,“Please machine give juice period.”). She could also use the computer to generate keyboard responses from her human caregivers who were in another area awaiting her communications. Due to the enormous success of the project, Georgia State University constructed the Language Research Center in 1981, with Dr. Rumbaugh as its founding director.
Aside from the computer-monitored keyboard, which was created for the LANA project, Dr. Rumbaugh developed the “Rumbaughx” (pronounced Rum-box), a joystick used by primates for complex interactive tasks with a computer. The Rumbaughx was used to train rhesus monkeys for NASA’s “Rhesus Project.”
Dr. Rumbaugh was quoted in The Monkey Wars (Blum, D. 1994, Oxford University Press) about his results on the project: “We had two rhesus macaques already here, Abel and Baker. We showed them the joysticks and it was just like falling off a log. We started in March, and by June, I was giving a presentation to a joint NASA-French symposium. It just blew everyone’s mind.”
Duane Rumbaugh’s most famous animal language research project, which he managed with his former wife Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, was with a bonobo ape named Kanzi, who absorbed language skills while watching his mother work with researchers on the afore-mentioned analog computer-based keyboard. Unlike his mother, Kanzi understood the purpose of the keyboard and was able to make his desires known. As a result, the Rumbaughs completely changed their ape training program to be as similar to how a human child learns language as possible, and eventually Kanzi was able to put three or more words together in a sentence. Further testing determined that Kanzi could comprehend at least 500 novel sentences. The team came to the conclusion that apes can understand human syntax, similarly to that of a three-year old child, if they are reared from birth in a language structured environment.
In their 1994 book Animal Learning and Cognition, the Rumbaughs summarized their research findings: “Though none will argue that any animal has the full capacity of humans for language, none should deny that at least some animals have quite impressive competencies for language skills, including speech comprehension.”
A few weeks after the American Psychological Association convention, one of Duane Rumbaugh’s colleagues stopped by Evergreen Way to bring him the newly-won crystal trophy and describe the symposium in great detail. Dr. Rumbaugh was visibly touched by the gesture and grateful to the association for the accolades and recognition that he received. A few days after the visit, staff and residents of Evergreen Way threw a party for Duane to celebrate his accomplishments. Dr. Rumbaugh discussed working with apes and monkeys and answered many questions about his accomplishments. His friends and neighbors gushed about how proud they were of him and how impressed they were by his life’s accomplishments.
When asked how he felt about the award, Dr. Rumbaugh thanked his neighbors and responded with a shy smile, “The award does not belong solely to me – it belongs to the many colleagues who assisted me with projects and the organizations that funded our important work. It was fortuitous that computer technology had evolved, which facilitated working with our monkeys and apes. I am truly humbled by the recognition of the value of my life’s work.”
The Amazing Apes YouTube video
By Fern Marder