Perils of talking to apes

1 minute read

Barbara King comments on Koko, Kanzi and Panbanisha, “Thoughts On Three Famous ‘Language Apes’”.

For decades, the Gorilla Foundation, run by the scientist Penny Patterson, has maintained based on Koko's own use of sign language that Koko would like to have a baby. Recently the Foundation posted this video clip, in which Koko is presented, verbally and in diagram form, with four complicated choices about "family planning."
Patterson, at the end of the clip, affirms her interpretation that Koko grasped all of the options presented to her. The idea is that Koko, by pointing to one of the four diagrammed choices, can and should help make decisions that involve the reproductive activities and the welfare of other gorillas. This raises ethical issues, to say the least.

We haven’t come to the apes in my Biology of Mind course yet, but we were discussing the nineteenth-century origins of ethology yesterday. The initial move toward a science of animal behavior was possible because anthropomorphic accounts of animal behavior were set aside. The apes pose a recurring challenge to the rejection of anthropomorphism, because some of their behavioral capabilities really are homologous with ours. The cognitive border between ape and human may be a no-mans land, with one or two traits occasionally crossing the frontier to the other side. King’s last word is fitting – an ape can never grasp the complexities of the human world…yet neither can we fully grasp the complexities of theirs.