Sunday, August 16, 2015

Koko the Gorilla Meets Mr. Rogers

Koko, a western lowland gorilla held in captivity, learned over 1,000 signs from American Sign Language, and achieved a "sophisticated understanding" of spoken English by the age of 44.[1] Research has uncovered, moreover, that "gorillas may be capable of complex vocal behavior that defies previous beliefs about their communicative abilities."[2] In other words, the species is able to have a spoken language. Even though humans branched off from chimpanzees rather than gorillas 7 million years ago (our own species, homo sapiens, began 1.8 million years ago), the findings are hardly surprising; after all, whales and dolphins communicate by making distinct sounds. Even so, the prospect of being able to carry on a "conversation" with a member of another species is astounding. Gorillas like Koko might one day be able to tell us what it is like to be a gorilla. Ironically, we might learn more about our own species in the process. 

Koko teaching Mr. Rogers, star of the children's learning show, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,"  the sign for love.

Koko can make the sign for love, but do her keepers know she means the same thing as we do? Do gorillas feel love as we do? It is possible that a gorilla using human sign language is merely manipulating symbols according to rules. If so, it could not be said that Koko understands love. Even if she intends to communicate love by its sign, she might have in mind the love that gorillas have, rather than what we experience as love. Watching her favorite film, she turned away when the parents were saying goodbye to their boy as he boarded a train. Koko signed that it was sad because the mother loves her son. It is possible that Koko was referring to the biological attachment that a mother gorilla has for her baby, rather than what we mean by love. Koko might have meant merely that the mother will miss her boy, rather that the mother feels a selfless love for her son. Of course, what we mean by love may turn out to be more biological and less godly than we conveniently suppose. 

Koko, a fan of the television show, "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," expressing affection for the star. Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, seems weary of his fan, at least in his body language.

Moreover, the research being conducted on Koko and other gorillas in captivity may bring us one step closer to the realization that we are just one species among many others, rather than unique, as in being made in God's image. This is not to say that God does not exist, whether or not it coheres to the Western conceptions. Perhaps gorillas have a spiritual nature too; they may even have an idea roughly equivalent to ours for God (maybe Koko's god is similar to that of the Exodus). If not, theology may be a function of brain complexity. If gorillas could communicate to us a species-specific spirituality or idea of the divine, then we could put our own in perspective and thus see it in a refreshing light. Perhaps we might find that our religions are human, all too human.[3]

In short, learning more about how gorillas communicate, and teaching those like Koko more human language can potentially increase our knowledge of what it is like to be another species. Even though Koko has a sophisticated knowledge of English and the use of a thousand signs, language would have to be capable of transmitting what it is like to be a gorilla or human. 

1. Carolyn Gregoire, "Apes May Be Much Closer to Human Speech Than We Realized," The Huffington Post, August 15, 2015.
2. Ibid.
3. "Human, All Too Human" is the title of one of Friedrich Nietzsche's books, but I have in mind David Hume's theory of religion. See his "The Natural History of Religion" for his account of how the human brain "translates" religion into distinctly human terms. See also the last chapter of my book, "God's Gold."