How similar are we to animals?

We all know animals can communicate — but can they communicate like humans? And if they can, does that mean we lose our position as a unique and gifted species?

Such are the questions to be explored at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20, at Southern Oregon University by psychology Prof. Mark Krause, who worked up close for six years at Central Washington University with the language abilities of chimpanzees and came away feeling they share a lot of communication skills with us.

Krause knew and worked with Washoe, who earned fame as the first nonhuman to learn American Sign Language and use it with humans, at CWU's Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute. Washoe died three years ago at age 42.

Krause's presentation at Meese Auditorium in the SOU Art Building, entitled "Human Language/Animal Communication: Bridging the Gap," will show how he learned that almost all of what humans claim as unique traits — language, tool use, self-awareness, social and political systems — all have been shown to occur in nonhuman species.

"And not just apes," although, Krause says, self-awareness seems to be unique to primates.

Self-awareness, Krause notes, is the rare ability to recognize one's "self" in a mirror and know that it's "you." Tool use, once vaunted as a distinctively human achievement, is now known in many species, he says.

In his work as a graduate student with chimps, Krause saw them master up to 200 signs. Strangely, he says, they were receptive to more signs than they could produce — that is, they could understand signs even if they couldn't use some.

In his research on ape signing at CWU, Krause learned that apes could perform an exotic task once thought unique to humans — pointing to things and drawing the attention of humans to them.

Apes can communicate in their own way with chirps, grunts and chest-thumping — and they have the ability to vocalize alarms that tell other chimps whether a predator is a snake, eagle or leopard, but they can't vocalize words, as humans do.

However, said Krause, apes are able to make intriguing inroads in the "gap" between animal and human communication and to get their message across in ways strikingly similar to ours.

Krause will talk about other species that can communicate with humans, including dolphins and parrots. Dolphins, he says, can understand full arm signals but not the hand signs chimps can understand.

The talk is the first in the winter series of "On Being Human," lectures designed to provoke thought and dialog in many areas of study. The next talk deals with "post humans" and "the singularity" that happens when the exploding information in our world exceeds our ability to process it. Other talks will deal with social networks, "post-modern war," and what goes on in the minds of dogs.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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