Humans and Other People: A review of NEXT OF KIN: MY CONVERSATIONS WITH CHIMPANZEES by Roger Fouts and Stephen Tukel Mills

I sorely miss the field of anthropology, so I read NEXT OF KIN: MY CONVERSATIONS WITH CHIMPANZEES by Roger Fouts and Stephen Tukel Mills, a persuasive memoir that chronicles Fouts’ history with chimpanzee Washoe and her chimpanzee family, with whom he researched communication with and between chimpanzees in ASL.

The only critique I have of NEXT OF KIN that I want to bring up is that Fouts’ argument for the legal (and generally understood) personhood of chimpanzees depends on an assumption that non-white, non-male humans have indeed achieved full personhood status in the 21st century. On multiple occasions, he references that once upon a time, people of color and women were not considered people, but that such views are now considered unthinkable–hence, he imagines a future where to relegate chimpanzees to the status of object and not subject would be considered similarly unthinkable. It is… an experience to read this part of the argument in 2014, when anti-Black racism is institutionalized to the point where legal institutions are causing more deaths in the African-American community than lynchings in the early 1900s and women who create public feminist work and research receive death threats for having done so. Fouts’ ignorance of the fact that lots of people still aren’t allowed to be people undermined the text to some degree.

Scientists are human, too, a revelation which says much about my assumptions/expectations. The rest of Fouts’ book is beautifully drafted, making clear and complex scientific research accessible to a non-industry reader. Fouts’ explanation of evolutionary history and how it relates to the similarities and differences between humans and chimpanzees should be taught in all introductory anthropology classrooms, it is so thoroughly fascinating and so fascinatingly thorough. The more conventionally memoir sections were an absolute joy to read; I all but forced friends and family to listen to me retell stories of Lucy’s and Washoe’s personalities and lives on several occasions. I also cried a lot. The book is also, in part, a personal recollection of the conversion of an academic into an activist, the telling of which is done very frankly with regards to how that changes the meaning of a “career,” and why Fouts made those choices intentionally, regardless. I recommend this book to anyone who has ever cared about the biosphere, the biomedical industry, or made a connection with a non-human animal.

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