The Psychologist Who Raised A Chimp With His Baby

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, December 26, 2015
A telephoto of a wild chimpanzee
“I cannot conceive of chimpanzees developing emotions, one for the other, comparable in any way to the tenderness, the protectiveness, tolerance, and spiritual exhilaration that are the hallmarks of human love in its truest and deepest sense.” —Jane Goodall, “In the Shadow of Man”

In A Nutshell

Winthrop and Luella Kellogg wanted to know what had happened to feral children to make them feral, so they decided that since it wouldn’t be ethical to raise a child in the woods, they were going to raise a chimp alongside their 10-month-old son. Gua, the chimp, outpaced her human sibling in almost all areas of development, save for the acquisition of words, and imprinted on the child so much that he began speaking in barks and grunts. The experiment lasted for only nine months in the early 1930s.

The Whole Bushel

As a graduate student, Winthrop Kellogg was fascinated with the idea of feral children. Cases had been well-documented already, stories of children who were raised in the wild without the benefit of human influence and who found it impossible to adapt to human civilization once they were introduced to it. Kellogg had already been working as a psychologist for years when he decided that he wanted to get a more in-depth look at what was going on in the mind and development of a child raised as another species.

Part of Kellogg’s argument concerned the intelligence of the children in question. It was assumed that the feral children had been born with low IQs, but Kellogg argued that couldn’t be the case at all. If it was, he thought, they wouldn’t have survived. He also insisted that there was a period of experience and learning early on in life that shaped a creature for the rest of its existence, and he set about trying to prove that.

Since raising a child in a wild environment and observing them unseen was of questionable ethics, Kellogg decided to do the opposite and raise a chimpanzee as a human child would be raised. And he was going to go all the way. Previous attempts had been made to teach chimps human language, but those had failed. Kellogg decided he wasn’t just going to be working with a chimp during business hours: He was going to raise one alongside his own 10-month-old son, Donald.

Kellogg and his wife, Luella, adopted a chimp named Gua that was about seven months old. She would be a part of their family 24 hours a day. She would be dressed, fed, and played with as though she were human, and she would be doted on as if she were their biological child.

For nine months, the Kelloggs worked with Gua and Donald alongside each other and regularly put them both through a series of tests that measured their development. From memory and reflexes to play behavior, obedience, language skills, and attention span, their development was carefully plotted in what must have been an exhausting exercise.

The Kelloggs were nothing if not exhaustive, and their observations were thorough. They even described the difference in the sounds made when a spoon was thudded against the skull of their son, as opposed to the skull of the chimp.

This was, after all, the 1930s.

In the end, their results were intriguing. Gua never mastered language, but Donald’s baby babble became rather atypical as he tried to mimic the sounds his adopted sister was making. At first, he would mimic her as she made sounds. Later, he used the same grunts and barks in an attempt to communicate like she did.

Gua also outpaced her human sibling in many ways. She learned to feed herself sooner, and she was better at problem-solving at a younger age. She took the lead role when it came to exploring new places and new objects. Speech and language—proper speech and the forming of words—were about the only things Donald picked up faster.

It’s not clear why Kellogg ended the experiment when he did, but there are a couple of intriguing ideas. Gua was also physically outpacing Donald, and there might have been some fear that she was getting too strong to be playing with the baby. There also may have been a fear that Donald’s own development was being set back as she influenced him more than he influenced her, an odd insight into the developmental years of feral children.

Show Me The Proof

The Psychological Record: From Bottle-Fed Chimp To Bottlenose Dolphin
Evolutionary Psychology, by Lance Workman and Will Reader