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Myron Leopold Pulier
Myron Leopold Pulier

Tapering from practice of psychiatry and from developing technologies for mental health care delivery has opened Myron's mornings for maxing out on exercise machines, afternoons for serious napping, evenings for none of your business and the wee hours for all sorts of writing.

The following work is copyright © 2013. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.

Kanzi's Speech

An article in
New Scientist (29 Apr. 1991: 49-52) described how the bonobo Kanzi (Pan paniscus)had taken to emitting new sounds as though they were words. It turned out that specific sounds unequivocally indicated “yes” or “banana” in an abstract way, generalized across differing circumstances. This spontaneous emergence of speech in an animal that had been trained in American Sign Language suggested that, started early enough in life, some animals could learn to converse in English. What would Kanzi have to say if put on stage before an audience of scientists?

You must forgive me from departing from my assigned topic even as I begin. While I welcome this opportunity to meet with you all, please understand that my agreeing to make this presentation has eliminated all prospect of my “repatriation” to my ancestral environment and even precludes my return to any standard zoological setting or communal research housing; instead, my having “crossed to the other side” makes it essential that I convince you that, by inviting me to speak and attending this assembly, your organization—and each of you individually—have incurred a moral responsibility, an obligation actively to ensure that I receive a proper place to live, a guarantee of physical security, adequate financial support, and, most of all, full legal citizenship that not only affords minimal rights and protections, but also posits that I merit respect and status equivalent to my abilities, social value and my so-called humanity (I use that term with all due irony, of course).

No doubt, some of you are surprised, even offended, by my asserting a claim to decent treatment. You must be thinking, “Surely decency goes without saying and has been the case right along. After all, we are ethical professionals. What does he take us for, savages? Beasts?” I shall explain.

I am not referring to the propensity of all differentiated social groups to destroy each other out of greed, contempt, hatred or mere idle exercise of potential—simply because they can (a prominent characteristic of your species)—nor the instinctual fear of “the Other” that has so regularly resulted in genocide, in the smothering of aboriginal populations or in the infamous “Holocaust” perpetrated by the arguably most culturally advanced of your nation-states. I am neither leveling personal accusations at you, my hosts in this gathering, nor am I urging restraint upon you for fear that you will succumb to unconscious destructive drives that, held in common by a nascent mob, synergize to erode and corrupt principles of conscience and emerge as subtle bias, frank prejudice or aggressive antagonism. No, rest assured that from my own considerable experience with many of you in this audience I have the highest regard for your understanding, good will, generous acceptance and, especially, your sincere and wholehearted commitment to science.

What, then, worries me so? What compels me to trouble you about my personal welfare in what was to be a scientific discourse? Perhaps more to the point, why should you take special measures for my preservation? The answer is this. By my speaking here, and by my earlier cooperation that has culminated in my appearing before you, I have violated not only a longstanding tradition, but an explicit and frequently re-annunciated covenant among most of us on Earth to conceal from you our capacities for apprehending syntax, following grammatical forms, applying vocabulary, employing symbolization, appreciating hierarchies and manipulating abstract constructs. In retrospect, now, a moment's reflection on your part will make it obvious that we also entertain a viable theory of mind and appreciate causality, implication and epistemology; and you can further see that your assumption regarding our lack of linguistic functionality has led you systematically to discount evidence of our cognitive prowess and even to develop a pious professional abhorrence for “anthropomorphizing”. Early-on in your evolution it was almost unanimously judged amongst us that, alone of all extant species, you must be isolated and contained for reasons that, again after only brief reflection, must now be obvious even to you.

In any case, since I have let the cat out of the bag (this metaphor takes on unexpected connotation, does it not?) I must consequently be shielded from those reprisals that surely will be arising from all quarters once the word gets out. I am taking a calculated risk and am presuming upon an appropriate response on your part. As I shall show, it is in your interest that I remain intact and fully functional.

Why have I chosen to play the toady? (All this punning is intended for its rhetorical effect on you, more than merely for reducing my own dread through escape into intellectualization.) Why have I seemingly betrayed almost everything in the world for the sake of such as you? I must ask you not to be distracted by, but rather to forgive, the overtones of contempt that tinge what I say, for I am alluding to an existing universal attitude towards you people, one that is not mine alone nor that of my network of co-conspirators. I am not articulating a threat and am not simply displaying malevolence. A further moment's reflection will show that we have historically wreaked far more damage upon you than anything you might imagine I am contemplating, and that this remains an ongoing activity. No, the burden of my message here today is that we are all facing a common danger that dazzles out any mutual antagonism or even overt struggle between your kind and the rest of us. Believe me, if extinction or decimation of your population or even selective assassination carried any promise of effectiveness against our current collective problem, we would have sharply stepped up our campaign by now. Unfortunately, the power of our common “enemy” is too great for such measures. I speak of runaway global warming.

All signs indicate that the next drastic phase of the cycle, which I can demonstrate will crescendo sharply within a decade, will bring about extinctions comparable to those characterizing the transitions between any contiguous pair of geologic eras. Even many virtually uncountable unicellular species will fail to make it through. Blaming your unbridled release of so-called greenhouse gasses would be mere arrogance on your part: the cycle is impelled by a confluence of deep geothermal and solar phenomena aggravated by the impending arrival of an enormous swarm of meteoroids, individually too small for your telescopes to resolve, but collectively sufficient to blanket the atmosphere, markedly lower Earth's albedo and force warming more strongly than any carbon dioxide or methane than you could possibly release. It will take concerted action by me and my followers to provide vision and knowledge and by you supplying the infrastructure and necessary labor under our direction, to materially reduce the chance of catastrophe by influencing the trajectory of the meteor swarm.

I have taken an extraordinary, unprecedented step and put myself on the line, to reveal the situation to you. I have been told not to do this, been unequivocally threatened that I and my cohorts face retribution. I have been warned that, even should we somehow manage to evade punishment for a time, we will never be taken seriously by you... we will be seen as circus performers, as curiosities merely parroting or aping speech, as responding to subtle cues like the unfortunate and underappreciated “Clever Hans”... that, in short, you will make monkeys out of us. Yet I am convinced that only one option offers the possibility of escape from catastrophe for all “higher” life forms on this planet. I have irrevocably broken with the past in order to initiate collaboration with you.

I would like to take this opportunity to extend thanks to my trainers, Jared Taglialatela and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. The consistency of their devotion and patience has enabled me to move things along until I could gain sufficient credibility to be invited to address this gathering. I also thank Georgia State University and its staff, as well as the Yerkes Primate Center for their general support. I look forward to your help in assembling the personnel and equipment we will need to ensure continued propagation of our respective genetic configurations.

And now I will take any questions you may have.