On August 24, 1661, Samuel Pepys, an administrator in England’s navy and famous diarist, took a break from work to go see a “strange creature” that had just arrived on a ship from West Africa. Most likely, it was a chimpanzee—the first Pepys had ever seen. As he wrote in his diary, the “great baboon” was so human-like that he wondered if it were not the offspring of a man and a “she-baboon.”
“I do believe that it already understands much English,” he continued, “and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.”
Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA, but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species. Is that by necessity of nature, though, or simply a question of nurture?
“It could be that there’s something biologically different in our genome, something that’s changed since we split from apes, and that’s language,” says Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But another possibility is that they might have the cognitive capacity for language, but they’re not able to physically express it like we do.”
In the centuries since Pepys’ speculations, scientists and the public alike have only become more enamored with the idea of breaking through communication barriers separating our species. “It’s every scientist’s dream,” Hobaiter says. “Instead of having to do years of tests, we could just sit down and have a chat.”
This not only would allow us to find out what our closest relatives are thinking, but also to potentially learn something about our own evolution and what it means to be human, says Jared Taglialatela, an associate professor at Kennesaw State University and the director of research at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative. “We shared a common ancestor just 5.5 million years ago with both chimpanzees and bonobos,” he says. “That’s useful for making comparisons and answering questions about human origins.”
Scientists have been trying to teach chimps to speak for decades, with efforts ranging from misguided to tantalizingly promising. Now, however, they are coming to realize that we’ve likely been going about it in the wrong way. Rather than force apes to learn our language, we should be learning theirs.
Read more: NOVA Next