Koko the Gorilla

This was the topic of discussion at last night’s anthropology class…

There have been several attempts to teach animals language in the past. What we’ve learned is that some animals may actually have the capacity for language… but none have the speech capabilities that humans have. In humans, the larynx descends around the age of 2. This doesn’t happen with other primates. In the 1950s a chimpanzee (Vicky) was taught to speak, but she could only speak 4 words (Mama, Papa, cup, up) and they all sounded pretty much the same. Researchers finally realized that maybe it wasn’t stupidity that prevented animals from speaking languages – it was a physical barrier (the high larynx).

Koko is a lowland gorilla raised by Penny Patterson. Patterson was a graduate student at Stanford when she met and began to work with Koko. Koko is one of the only non-human primates who can "speak" decent Ameslan (American Sign Language). She’s part of the Gorilla Language Project; the project is the longest running inter-species communication project ever conducted.

If you believe the results (I do), they give us some incredible information about the intelligence of non-human primates. Koko can use at least 500 signs, and understands at least 1,000 signs. She can understand about 2,000 words of spoken English. Some people say that Koko is just signing for treats; however, all evidence seems to suggest that she actually understands what she is signing.

There are a few key things to note about Koko’s language ability. She has the ability to do object naming. This means she could create phrases for objects if she didn’t know their names. A lighter was a "bottle match", and her pet kitten was "All Ball". All Ball was a present for Koko – unfortunately, All Ball was killed by a car just a few months after Koko got her. Koko was devastated, and understood when Patterson relayed what had happened. She cried when she was alone.

Koko can lie. She can also use displacement (speaking about the past or the future – what has happened, what might happen). These are both really important in determining whether a creature truly has the capacity for language.

Patterson brought in another gorilla, Michael, to be Koko’s mate. It didn’t work. Their relationship was that of siblings, not sweethearts. In fact, Koko’s nickname for Michael was "stinky devil" – certainly not an intimate nickname. Michael passed away in 2000 (Koko is still going strong; she was born in 1971).

Koko’s IQ has been estimated at anywhere between 70-95. Considering the fact that the average human IQ is 100, these results are quite shocking. One of the questions that Koko got wrong on the test was this: Where do you go when it rains? The correct answer was supposed to be house. Koko picked a tree… Now – is that really wrong? The fact that she can do so well on a very culturally biased IQ test (biased towards humans) is so surprising to me.

Have you heard of Koko? What do you think about non-human primates and language? Do you think they can really understand and use it? Or are they just faking to please their teachers?

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Andrew #

    I have heard of Koko in Nip/Tuck and remember hearing about her here and there in school. I think she does use language to communicate with her caretaker. Who’s to say faking means she doesn’t understand? Isn’t that what people do all the time?

Your Comment