The Curious Case of Gua: When a Chimpanzee Lived as a Human Child

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In the intriguing world of psychological experimentation, a remarkable chapter unfolds: the tale of Gua, a baby chimpanzee raised side by side with a human child, Donald Kellogg. In 1931, the pioneering work of comparative psychologist Winthrop Niles Kellogg and his wife delved into the profound impact of environment on development. Could a chimpanzee, immersed in human society, truly adopt human behaviours? This daring experiment aimed to unravel the mysteries of nature versus nurture.

Winthrop Kellogg’s fascination with wild children, reared without human contact, led him to devise a unique alternative—introducing an infant chimpanzee, Gua, into human civilization. On June 26, 1931, the Kelloggs welcomed Gua into their home, alongside their son Donald. The subsequent nine months of meticulous experimentation, documented in the Psychological Record, sought to explore the boundaries of development influenced by environment.

For 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the Kelloggs raised Donald and Gua identically, subjecting them to a battery of scientific tests covering an array of subjects, from blood pressure and memory to language comprehension and play behavior. Gua initially surpassed Donald in some areas, sparking early speculation about the potential success of the experiment.

Despite Gua’s initial successes, she eventually encountered a cognitive barrier. The experiment illuminated the limitations heredity placed on an organism, highlighting the delicate interplay between nature and nurture. Gua, genetically a chimpanzee, couldn’t transcend her inherent nature through training and nurturing alone.

The experiment’s conclusion, on March 28, 1932, was sudden and shrouded in mystery. Gua was returned to the Orange Park primate colony through a gradual rehabilitation process, leaving researchers and the public questioning the reasons behind the abrupt termination. The Kelloggs, typically meticulous in documentation, provided little insight into their decision.

Various theories surround the enigmatic end of the experiment. Exhaustion from constant parenting and scientific work is one possibility. Another consideration is Gua’s increasing strength and potential threat to her human brother. The authors of the Psychological Record suggest a third possibility—the language retardation in Donald, who began imitating Gua’s chimp noises, may have influenced the decision to conclude the study.

The Gua experiment remains a compelling and mysterious episode in the history of comparative psychology. While it may not have produced the intended human-chimpanzee hybrid, the study shed light on the intricate relationship between genetics and environment in shaping an individual’s development. The unanswered questions surrounding its termination only add to the intrigue of this forgotten chapter in the quest to understand the nature of human and animal behaviour.

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