Koko, a western lowland gorilla, died in her sleep at age 46 this week. Koko started learning a version of American Sign Language adapted for apes when she was a year old, and 45 years later she could comprehend 2,000 words and “speak” 1,000. As the subject of news article after news article and numerous documentaries, she had cemented her place in the zoological zeitgeist. Koko, in short, was a superstar.
Celebrities everywhere court controversy whether they intend to or not, and Koko was no exception. Skeptical scientists questioned how much of Koko’s communication actually came from her, and how much came from our own preconceptions and projections. Researchers have argued in the past that apes don’t possess the same complex language-processing abilities that humans do. They’ve also said that humans communicate extemporaneously about the things around us, conversing for conversation’s sake alone. Apes, on the other hand, prefer functional language. They use their words when they want something concrete.
That gap points to emotional differences between us and our simian peers that researchers who spend years raising apes almost as their children are eager to disprove or overcome. And in Koko’s case, there were certainly obstacles.
Sometimes, in response to a prompt, Koko would make the wrongsign, or say the word “nipple” with apparent randomness, and her caretaker would call her “silly” before trying again. Other times, the caretaker’s questions seemed designed to elicit responses that made it seem as if Koko understood more, or more deeply, than she really did.
Ann Althouse points out that Koko had a strange curiosity about human women's boobs:
Here's something I wrote about Koko back in 2005:Actually, it's probably not so strange. Permanently swollen breasts in the adult female are a unique trait to humans among apes, and, in fact, virtually all mammals. Koko was clearly cognizant of sex differentiations between humans, and perhaps wondered why all the adult females she met seemed to be lactating.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him. But people taught a gorilla to speak and she said the very thing – if we are to believe this new lawsuit – that drunken guys say to women at Mardi Gras. If a gorilla could speak, we would understand her all too well!Interesting, that bit about " accommodating a celebrity gorilla." It makes me think of Donald Trump's "And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab 'em by the pussy." Donald Trump, by the way, is not a gorilla. He's an orangutan.
Perhaps sensitivity to gorilla culture ought to have moved the women who worked with the renowned Koko to show her their nipples, but, America being what it is, they sued. Ah! Our litigious society! Should that be part of a job? Accommodating a gorilla? Make that, accommodating a celebritygorilla! Well, there's no hope – exceedingly little hope – of convincing the gorilla that sexual harassment is wrong.
Being human, we love Wittgenstein's idea that the lion – or the gorilla -- would say something stunningly new. But the truth may be that the animal would just say "show me your t**s" – again and again. Oh, Koko! We once thought you were so profound. We believed we could make you human through language, but what have we done? Have we only reminded ourselves of our own lack of profundity?