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Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Scientist with Special Standing
Great Ape Trust of Iowa

Intentionality in All its Guises

Friday, March 20, 2009
Lecture Hall 8, 4:00 PM


When the capacity for ‘meta-behavior,’ or communicative behavior ‘about behavior’ arises in a population, the perceptual and mental worlds of individual members become organized differently and natural selection (as well as other modes of selection) begin to operate on another level. For example, a gesture or expression signaling ‘an intent’ to bite or attack, becomes more informative than an attack itself, because it has the potential to prevent an attack and/or at the very least to negotiate the outcome of a potential attack before it takes place. This is especially true for large primates such as baboons and apes. Philosophers have attempted to clarify the discussion of intentionality by differentiating between 1st order intentionality (the baboon intends that the bite threat deter another baboon from attacking), 2nd order intentionality (the baboon intends that the bite threat make the other baboon ‘think’ he is going to attack – which requires a theory that the other baboon has a mind and can think), and 3rd order intentionality (the baboon intends that the bite threat make the other baboon think that he himself thinks he can intimidate the other baboon by a threat and that he has reason to believe he can back up his threat.)

These issues matter because language arises from, and rides on, 3rd order intentionality. If baboons are capable of 3rd order intentionality then we would expect them to be capable of language. Language matters, because it is used to define what it means to be human. It also matters because when language use becomes operational at the group level and with 3rd intentionality, a dissociation of action and message about future potential action takes place. All messages are filtered through a layer of perceived/constructed ‘intentionality.’ Thus the ‘meaning’ of linguistic messages become layered, binding individuals together in a web of co-constructed intentions. The implications of these co-constructed intentional worlds for the controversies in the field of nonhuman primate cognition and ape language will be discussed, then located within a new theoretical perspective, one that replaces the concept of ‘intentionality’ with a co-construction of purpose through patterned exchange of behaviors. The co-construction of purpose locates intentionality within the group’s social normative actions and roles, rather than within the ‘minds’ of individuals, thus rendering the question regarding the momentary ‘intent’ of an individual psychologically real, but inherently meaningless. The groups’ patterned interactions over time are seen as the mechanism that actually underlies exchanges which appear to be individually motivated and determined.

When ‘language’ is viewed through this lens, the apparent dichotomy between human and nonhuman primates, concerning language, falls away and we see a nearly seamless transition. However, the triadic linkage formed by the production of material artifacts, possessions, and bodily transformation with objects sets the stage for 4th order intentionality, one in which ‘intention’ is seen as arising from a source outside the individual and outside the group. Thus the ‘threat’ to bite is not only to make you think that I think I am not afraid to bite and thus to deter you from thinking that you might want to try to fight, but to make you think that I have a supernatural assist undergirding my threat, as embodied in the ‘mask’ of ‘bite threat’ that I dawn for greater effect. Fourth order intentionality signals an understanding of the ‘invisible power’ behind the displayed power and requires the accompaniment of myth and ritual for its effect. Evidence suggesting that bonobos may be capable of 4th order intentionality will be presented.


Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Ph. D, is a scientist in residence at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa and an Affiliate Scientist in the Department of Anthropology at Iowa State University. The Great Ape Trust of Iowa is a nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding the past and future of language, culture, tools and intelligence in apes. Great Ape Trust was initiated by visionary business leader Dr. Ted Townsend, in 2004 to make possible long-term cross-generational research on hominid evolution and the origins of culture. Dr. Townsend recognized the need for cultural studies of a unique group of bonobos, established at Georgia State University and funded through competitive research grants, to continue across multiple generations. These bonobos represented the only group of apes who had begun to employ a human language system and manufacture stone tools, through culturally induced practices. Realizing the unique potential of a Pan symbolicus in helping scientists to understand the emergence of humaness, and the inevitable controversies which tend surround any work challenging human uniqueness, Dr. Townsend stepped forward providing a safety net which in enabling the group, with its cultural knowledge and its kinship based lines of transmission, to continue across time. He is also making it possible for the academic community of Iowa to participate in this unique research effort.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh began working with this group of apes in 1975, by studying the gestural, indexical and socio-sexual skills of a wild group of bonobos brought to the Yerkes Primate Center under special dispensation by the National Academy of Science. Since that time, in collaboration with a team of researchers, she has documented and traced the spontaneous cultural emergence of comprehension of spoken language and the effect of language comprehension and production on other patterns of group behavior, including tool manufacture, art and music. While her initial work focused on the language skills of one bonobo, Kanzi, her current research addresses the deployment of language within the group of seven bonobos, the transmission of language and culture across generations, the implications of biculturality for both bonobos and humans and the role of vocal language in this bonobo group.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh has authored or co-authored five books with three major NHK documentaries. Her research has been featured on many television specials including The Discovery Channel, the Today Show, National Graphic, PBS, etc. and in many print articles including The New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, the New Yorker, etc. It has been published in academic and scholarly journals including Science, The Journal of Experimental Psychology, Brain and Behavioral Sciences, Child Development, Journal of Human Evolution, Biology and Philosophy, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and many others. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh began her work in primatology and language at the University of Oklahoma working with Dr. Roger Fouts and the first chimpanzees to acquire sign-language, Washoe Booee, Burno, Cindy, Thelma, Lucy and Allee. Her research has entailed investigations of the effects of rearing and bi-cultural inter-action with more than 20 chimpanzees and 15 bonobos and her understanding and investigation of their communication skills is based on first-hand participant interaction, co-species rearing studies, experimental investigations of specific abilities, and long-term observational data. Her work remains constantly informed by participant interaction with the group, though all of the bonobos now residing in the group are adults. The participant-observer approach distinguishes her work from that of most other primatologists investigating primate cognition. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh views this approach as essential to understanding the culture of apes as it is to understanding the culture of other human groups. She has received two honorary doctorates for her work, which stands as unique in the field because of the multi-disciplinary nature of its approach. Her current project, which emphasizes the construction of a complex real-world environment which emulates that of early hominids, is an ongoing collaborative effort with William Fields, a cultural anthropologist who joined the research team in 1999. Since that time their joint efforts have moved the trajectory of the work toward true inter-disciplinary synthesis, made manifest the underlying bicultural implications of the project, and laid the groundwork for the first true cross-cultural and cross-generational experimental investigations into the geniuses of humanity and the construction of human cultures.


  1. Lyn, H., E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Observational word learning in two bonobos (Pan paniscus): ostensive and non-ostensive contexts. Language and Communication, 2000. 20: p. 255-273.
  2. Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Murphy, J., Sevcik, R., Brakke, K. E., Williams, S. L. and Rumbaugh, D. M. (1993). “Language Comprehension in Ape and Child: With Commentary by Elizabeth Bates.” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 58.
  3. Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., William M. Fields, and Takeshi Furuichi and Takayoshi Kano, Ed. (1996). Language Perceived: Pan paniscus branches out. Great Ape Societies, Cambrige University Press.
  4. Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., William M. Fields, and Talialatela, J. (2000). “Ape Consciousness-Human Consciousness: A Perspective Informed by Language and Culture.” Oxford University Press 40(6): 910-921.
  5. Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Fields, W. M. and Spircu, T. (2004). “The Emergence of Knapping and Vocal Expression Embedded in a Pan/Homo Culture.” Biology and Philosophy 19: 541-575.
  6. Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Kanzi Wamba, Panbanisha Wamba, Nyota Wamba (2007). “Welfare of Ape in Captive Environments: Comments On, and By, A Specific Group of Apes.” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 10(1): 7-19.
  7. Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S., Rumbaugh, D. M. and Fields, W. M., Empirical Kanzi: Ape Language Controversy Unzipped, Skeptic. in press.

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