For over almost half a century, Francine “Penny” Patterson has claimed that her surrogate daughter, a female western lowland gorilla named Koko, can use sign language productively. Following what started as her own PhD project, Koko has gained international publicity due to both the public’s fascination with a domesticated gorilla that clearly interacts (but not necessarily linguistically communicates) with humans, and also due (largely) to what most scientists consider to be over-inflated claims by Patterson regarding Koko’s sign language usage.
To be sure, no one has ever claimed that Koko cannot use signs to signal certain elemental concepts that are interpretable by humans. For instance, gorillas have long been known to be capable of complicated social structures, intricate inter-personal relationships and of a wide range of emotions. Given this, Koko’s ability to use the sign for “sad” or “cry” on being shown pictures that would qualify as such, after extensive familiarization with the concerned sign-reference correlations, is hardly news to any primatologist. Patterson’s claims, however, go far beyond this ability (often also observed in bonobos and chimpanzees) — according to Patterson, Koko instinctively uses signs to communicate her feelings and thoughts. The ability to use discrete symbols, and to recursively combine them to create ever more complicated structures with semantic content, is a hallmark of the human species. And while Patterson does not, in fact, claim that Koko is quite that adept, her claims of Koko having self-consciousness, or being able to recognize herself in her reflections/creating a self-identity, and using sign-language to “think” about her world has consistently raised eyebrows in the scientific community. Several scientists have pointed out that Patterson is falling victim to the one cardinal sin in ethology — anthropomorphism. She has been compared to an over-zealous mother who is infatuated with her very clever baby, and is thus ascribing to the behaviours of the baby concepts that are, developmentally, beyond the baby’s ability. According to most, Patterson’s interpretations of Koko’s behaviors vanish when seen through more objective eyes.
While Patterson’s claims about Koko’s abilities are very likely to be overreaching, she has nonetheless to be commended for spending her entire life caring for the gorilla she adopted. Certainly this deserves more praise than Project Nim, wherein the researcher who adopted a chimpanzee, named him Nim Chimspky (after the polymath linguist Noam Chomsky), and tried to teach Nim sign language, would eventually give him up for a life in captivity when the research didn’t go as expected. Nim, having been raised in a human family, was unable to adapt to wilderness later on. He lived out the remainder of his life, following the sad (but predictable) demise of Project Nim, being subjected to various forms of experimental indignities, including being used for product testing — a confused, troubled and perpetually depressed chimpanzee, Nim died in his cage, forgotten and abandoned by the world that had moved on to the next circus trick.
There are important lessons to be learned from both Project Nim and Koko. The positive lesson is one of hope; we are only gradiently removed from our closest cousins with whom we share a majority of our genetic materials, who only lack may be one or two of our qualities, but are nonetheless very as capable of appreciating us as we them. The other lesson, though, is one of a more cautionary note; just because our cousins in the ape world lack our kind of language neither makes them lacking in consciousness, nor does it do to invade their world and try to teach them neat circus tricks in vain and misguided attempts to improve on evolution.