Feature Story

Koko the Gorilla Signs Her Last, but Leaves a Lasting Pedagogical Legacy

Perhaps more than any other pedagogical experiment, Koko the Gorilla captured the hearts and minds of all who got to know her.

It was 48 years ago, that a young graduate student from Stanford University: Francine Patterson, first met an infant gorilla, born that same year. She was a developmental psychologist (Dr. Patterson that is, not the Gorilla), and for whatever strange compunction overtook her at the time, she decided to teach the gorilla sign language. This would begin the longest interspecies communication experiment in scientific history.

The fruits of Patterson’s labor are nothing short of extraordinary, albeit not without controversy. Overtime, Koko proved not only that she could mimic and reproduce elements of American Sign Language, but that she could use these elements to communicate her own thoughts and feelings. By her adolescence, Koko could communicate proficiently and showed a strong grasp of language – earning the honorific of ‘smartest ape on earth’.

This is interesting, but in itself, not all that special. Even the most callous among us know that animals feel emotion, and if we give them some means to communicate, surely then they would be able to spit out a few obscure words. This was one of the most often criticisms of Koko and Patterson – they were called a circus act, just a carnival game which only those dumber than Koko would actually enjoy.

Among those with slight more scientific inquiry, the question was raised as to the intention of the communication. A psychologist from Columbia wondered whether Koko, and her fellow signing apes, were actually communicating, or just ‘running their hands’ until a human would acknowledge them and usually give them what they wanted. The skepticism among the scientific community was brutal, so too was it among the animal rights activists. They complained that Koko, who was kept away from other Gorillas, and was caged or enclosed in some form throughout her upbringing, was about as accurate a representation of her fellow-apes, as she would be of humans.

In spite of the criticism, Koko captured something of the popular imagination. A gorilla who could communicate with humans touched us in a way that most other science experiments do not. As time went on though, Koko started revealing behavior that proved beyond our initial understanding. She started showing evidence of symbolic thinking and higher order reasoning.

For those of us spared a higher education in psychology, the idea is that Koko was able to adapt and use symbols to represent complex emotions or ideas. This would mean Gorillas have the same basis of intelligence that we do, in other words – given enough time and their own environment, it is not unreasonable to assume that Gorillas might form advanced societies too. That is of course a bit of a stretch and one which Dr. Patterson didn’t make – but evidence of higher thinking was notable, and Koko was one of the rare cases we saw it in the natural world.

The other great revelation Koko showed was the universality of what we would think are human emotions. Just like us, Koko could be grumpy, sassy and combative. In a famous conversation, Koko once referred to one of her handlers as a ‘nut’, after she persisted with some annoying questions about a picture. The insult shows some real perspicacity, not just in forming the thought, but also associating the object of a nut as an symbol of derision; perhaps even a sense of humor.

The other great emotion Koko showed was grief. When, for example, her friend Robin Williams (yes, the actor and comedian Robin Williams) died in 2014, she was visibly upset and on the brink of tears. Some have said that she may have just been picking up cues from her human handlers, who by being sad, would in turn suggest to Koko that she too should be sad. This may be a factor, but for some reason there’s an intangible truth to Koko’s grief (memorialized in videos online) – almost something universal which evokes a sense of genuine pity in anyone who witnesses it.

However, at the end of it all, Koko was a science experiment, and like every other experiment that has or ever will be conducted, this one too must come to an end. Yet, there is a final lesson that Koko reminds us of, and I suspect that it is the greatest lesson from this extraordinary journey. Koko showed that even a gorilla could love. She loved her caretakers, in spite of the occasional fight, and she loved her pet cat – ‘ball’, which she cared for since it was a kitten. The fact that even an ape could love and care, just as we would, shows what I think is the universality of what we arrogantly call the ‘human’ condition.

We all want the same things, breathe the same air, cherish our futures, seek to love and be loved (to paraphrase John F. Kennedy). Koko showed it’s not just humans who aspire to these ideals. Koko gave a voice to her fellow voiceless animals, and in doing so revealed how similar we all are. I say all this because Koko’s fellow Gorillas have been hunted to the very brink of extinction – today there are fewer than 100,000 lowland Gorillas left, and about 1 in 20 of these are in zoos. Even scarier, there are only an estimated 880 mountain Gorillas left on all of earth.

Perhaps it’s time that we take a sign from Koko and show a little more ‘humanity’ to our fellow creatures…