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Song of the Ape

Sep 21, 2012
by Lenny Rutland, '03

Alumnus’ new book explores communication between chimpanzees

In “The Song of the Ape,” Andrew Halloran, ‘95, recounts a chimpanzee escape attempt at the drive-thru animal park where he worked. He received a blow to the head from an angry chimp wielding a deck brush, but at the same time came to better understand the communicative abilities of apes.

Five adult chimps had attempted to escape their island home in the park after their decades-long leader, Higgy, was deposed by a new alpha. Higgy’s group waited patiently for their chance to leave the island and took it in an orderly manner when opportunity arrived in the form of an unsecured rowboat.

On the surface, Halloran’s account of the event in the opening pages of the book is entertaining and even comical.

But for Halloran, the orchestration displayed by the chipanzees’ escape pointed to their high cognitive ability and even suggested the presence of a complex communication system that allowed chimps to plan and exchange information about the future.

“[There is] something being transmitted between individual [chimpanzees] that is far more complex than what we are picking up,” he said. “Chimps are communicating more than just about the here and now.”

After graduating from Flagler with a double major in philosophy and theater, Halloran worked at zoos in Atlanta and South Florida. In 2007, he earned his Ph.D. in biological and linguistic anthropology from Florida Atlantic University. He is now an assistant professor for scientific literacy at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Halloran’s research focuses on chimpanzee communication. He works by recording chimp vocalizations while observing behaviors, and then using sound spectrograms to statistically group those vocalizations.

Much of his work deals with how external forces — such as the acoustics of a group’s environment or stress brought on by change — influence the way chimpanzees communicate.

According to Halloran, the knowledge gained by studying chimpanzee communication can offer insight into how human language came to be.

“Our communication systems are entirely based on how we evolved,” he said. “We survive by communication. Chimps also survive by communication. … The group is strengthened by the way we communicate.”

Unlike the language-trained-ape projects that garner much media attention, Halloran investigates how chimps naturally communicate.

For him, and many other prominent linguists and primatologists, attempts to teach human language to apes is misguided, unscientific and provides little benefit.

“It’s not science,” he said. “It’s a trick. It tells us nothing about their communication systems. Nothing about what they’re doing in the wild. Nothing about their cognitive ability. It doesn’t tell us much about them.

“We’re missing out on something miraculous,” he continued. “We miss out on how they’re actually acting in the wild. … The more we focus on creating the world that [we want to see] there, the more we miss out on the world that’s actually there.”

In 2008, Halloran co-founded the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy in Nicaragua, where he serves as primatologist, conducting census studies of capuchin monkeys and field courses for primatology students. Over the summer of 2012, he traveled to Sierra Leone to observe chimps in their natural habitats — from mountains to lowlands — and study the effects of acoustics on group-specific vocalizations.

Halloran sees the philosophy background he gained at Flagler as “invaluable” for his primatology work and believes “The Song of the Ape” is, at its core, a work of philosophy.

“[The book is] a meditation on what the will is …” Halloran said. “The need to communicate, to interact with individuals, drives us to do what we do.”

He dedicated the book to the late Dr. Robin King, a Flagler philosophy professor whom he credits for having so much impact on his intellectual and professional life.

“[Dr. King] continues to be a profound influence on what I do,” Halloran said.

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