Who is Koko the gorilla and why did she matter?
Last month, humans worldwide grieved over the death of Koko, a 46 year-old western lowland gorilla who gained international fame after showing an impressive aptitude for a modified version of American Sign Language (ASL). Dr Francine Patterson, a researcher in developmental psychology at Stanford University, began working with Koko in 1972 when she embarked on an ambitious project to investigate whether apes and humans could communicate. Over the course of her life, Koko was the feature of many documentaries and appeared twice on the cover of National Geographic: First in 1978 and a second time in 1985 when the magazine published a story about the unique relationship she had formed with her pet kitten “All-Ball”.
Thanks to Dr Patterson’s training, Koko reportedly acquired over 1000 signs and could understand over 2000 spoken English words, according to The Gorilla Foundation which was founded by Dr Patterson in 1976. The foundation’s research also claimed that she could use language creatively, which, Dr Patterson insists, reflects the complexity of her cognitive structures. Indeed, according to The Gorilla Foundation, the primary focus of the project was not just whether gorillas could acquire sign language but what humans could learn about gorillas’ cognitive abilities through interspecies communication. The foundation also claims that Koko communicated complex emotions and thoughts through sign language, abilities that were thought to be unique to humans. Evidence of this includes a video published on the foundation’s website showing the moment Koko was informed of her All-Ball’s death, to which she responded by signing “sad, bad, trouble”. Other research draws parallels between Koko’s language acquisition and that of human children and suggests that the gestures Koko used to communicate may form the basis of human language.
Did Koko really learn language?
For many in the scientific community, however, ape language research was controversial, with some researchers claiming that the apes were producing signs only after being prompted by their trainers. Despite Koko often being credited with mastering ASL, her “language” was not equivalent to any recognised sign language and its grammatical structure is still debated. Other critics claim that the apes’ trainers selectively interpret or project their own meaning onto the apes’ behaviour. For example, after being informed of the death of her pet kitten, Koko’s signs may have been merely a reaction to the sorrow displayed by the caregiver rather than a expression of her own emotions. These critiques are still frequently used to challenge the conclusion that Koko truly acquired language.
So, what did Koko teach us?
There is no doubt that Koko was beloved by humans around the globe. A video released by the Gorilla Foundation shows actor Robin Williams tickling and laughing with Koko one afternoon in 2001. This clip, along with others featuring Koko, has amassed millions of views online.
In addition, a book dedicated to Koko’s relationship with All-Ball was distributed to school children in Cameroon as “empathy education material”. Indeed, promoting ape conservation and care are key missions of The Gorilla Foundation which they believe can be achieved through interspecies communication.
In the press release announcing the Koko’s death, the foundation stated that she was an “ambassador” for her critically endangered species and “an icon for… interspecies empathy”. At the news of her passing, people around the world expressed their sadness on social media, with many declaring that she broke down barriers humans perceive between us and other species. Despite the controversy surrounding ape language research, it is clear that “Project Koko” succeeded in inspiring compassion and empathy which will, hopefully, continue to encourage conservation efforts for our closest relatives.