Koko the Gorilla

Alice Impossible

Koko the gorilla, now over 40 years old, was taught sign language from the time she was a wee little fuzzball, and has been studied ever since. She understands a surprising amount of spoken English and even more ASL, and she signs extensively in response to either. She’s sometimes referenced when animal rights are discussed, and essential when the evolution and uses of language are being analyzed. Apparently she can sometimes be quite innovative in her communication. 

Koko ReadingOn the other hand, well... she's somewhat limited by the fact that - and I feel almost cruel saying this...

She's a monkey.

Yes, I know she's not technically a monkey. I've seen enough Planet of the Apes movies to know they're touchy about those distinctions. But if she's more than a monkey, she's not quite a people either. She's a gorilla doing the best she can to hear, watch, and express herself to people who are not her - people who are not even gorillas. Koko provokes some interesting questions about what it means to be sentient, whether certain basic civil rights should be extended to animals, and exactly how many different roles Roddy McDowell could play in one franchise before it became self-parody - none of which are why I find her so fascinating.

She is, to me, a hairy metaphor of something more tangible - an appropriated symbol for something near and dear to my innards:

Koko is why the 'liberal arts' matter in education.  

I'm all for STEM education, actual future employment, beating the Russians to the moon – all of it. Some of my best friends are math & science teachers (not really, but it seemed like something I should say), and some of my best students are on promising courses to change the world through engineering and biotechnology and Mandelbrot Sets and whatever the hell it is they do once they move into math that doesn't even use numbers and letters anymore.

Math StuffAs we press into this brave new world, however, I’d like to revisit some reasons non-STEM subjects matter, not just for the sickly pale artistic types, but all students:

1. Right-brain stuff helps you do better left-brain stuff, and vice versa. In practice this means mathematicians are mathier when they also partake of music, science-ish types do better science when they're stimulated by history or watercolors or e e cummings, etc. The liberal arts and the arts arts are good for the things that aren't arts.

2. Even people with real jobs (apparently in about ten years this will mean primarily engineers, medical professionals, and iPhone app developers) need to know how to read effectively and communicate clearly in order to do their real job stuff well.

3. Everyone has some magical special gift which must be discovered, nurtured, blah blah blah. In other words, something must keep us in touch with our souls. (Cue violins and rapidly moving clouds.)

4. If we don’t study history, we won’t know how to best manipulate and conquer people while blaming them for the results. 

5. We must recapture – and I don’t know how to say this without being kinda cheezy – we must recapture a mindset of reaching beyond our condition, not merely enduring it.

Teacher: What's an insult?  Koko: THINK DEVIL DIRTY

Teacher: What's an injury? Koko: THERE BITE (to a cut on her hand)  

Teacher: What is crazy?  Koko: TROUBLE SURPRISE 

Teacher: When do people say darn?  Koko: WORK OBNOXIOUS

Teacher: What can you think of that's hard?  Koko: ROCK... WORK. 

Teacher: What's a smart gorilla?  Koko: ME.  

Technical understanding of language allows us to accurately describe what is, or could be - tangible, literal, objective reality. Very important. But a mature understanding of language allows us to use words built on the literal and reach higher than what we can see, hear, or measure. Here's a paragraph from one of the studies done on dear Koko:

A conversation with Koko that involved this kind of creativity with the sign 'rotten'… Koko demonstrated the standard form of the sign in an exchange of insults after her companion called her a 'stinker.' Koko then inflected the sign by using two hands (perhaps meaning 'really rotten') and in the same sequence, brought the sign off her nose toward her companion, conveying the idea 'you're really rotten.' Koko's use of rotten in this conversation also demonstrates her grasp of the connotation of a word rather than its denotation or concrete or specific meaning.

The objective value of knowledge matters, but the subjective and symbolic value sometimes matters more. 

These invented signs indicate that the gorillas, like human children, take initiative with language by making up new words and by giving new meanings to old words. On the next level, there is evidence that Koko... can generate novel names by combining two or more familiar words. For instance, Koko signed 'bottle match' to refer to a cigarette lighter, 'white tiger' for a zebra, and 'eye hat' for a mask. Michael has generated similar combinations, such as 'orange flower sauce' for nectarine yogurt and 'bean ball' for peas. Other examples… are 'elephant baby' for a Pinocchio doll and 'bottle necklace' for a six-pack soda can holder...

Koko ArtWe should learn all we can learn and know all we can know, but that’s not where it ends. Language and stories and art (yes, she does art) and teachers push Koko – and us – to do more than solve a puzzle to get a banana. Under their influence she strives to understand more than can be understood, and to be more than she is. 

It's not a technical problem, it is - for lack of better verbage - a spiritual quest, a stretching of the proverbial soul. Lest you think I exaggerate:

Some responses, on the other hand, are quite unexpected. “How did you sleep last night?" (expecting 'fine', 'bad', or some related response.) 'FLOOR BLANKET.' (Koko sleeps on the floor with blankets.) "How do you like your blankets to feel?" 'HOT KOKO-LOVE.' "What happened?" (after an earthquake). 'DARN DARN FLOOR BAD BITE. TROUBLE TROUBLE.'

Wikipedia defines an 'earthquake' as "“the result of a sudden release of energy in the Earth's crust that creates seismic waves. The… seismic activity of an area refers to the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time… At the Earth's surface, earthquakes manifest themselves by shaking and sometimes displacement of the ground.” 

That's a pretty important thing to understand, especially if you live in a world with earthquakes. But what Koko tried to capture was - I'd argue - pretty important as well: 

Darn Darn Floor Bad Bite. Trouble Trouble.

EarthquakeThat's an earthquake alright. If you've experienced or even observed an earthquake, it makes good sense. In some ways, it's better than the technical definition.

It's experiential, it's emotional, it's loaded with metaphorical implications. By stretching to capture something she technically lacks the intelligence, the language, the experiences, the paradigm to explain, Koko touches important truths that would never have been brushed up against otherwise. Not just nice words, not just pretty ideas, not just nourishment for the soul - implications and realities that matter matter if you're ever going to be in an earthquake or live in a universe where earthquakes exist. Maybe even if you don't. 

That's what we're trying to inculcate and nurture in the so-called 'social studies' and 'language arts' and all those other classes which are too often defended only for their roles in promoting 'reading and writing' or 'critical thinking' skills. That a subject might have wider utilitarian purpose is great, but that doesn't mean that should be its exclusive or even its primary purpose. If we believe otherwise, we need to take down all of those 'reach for the stars' posters and replace them with 'more accurately measure and label the stars', and at least be consistent.

Reach for the StarsObviously it's important that we be able to solve the technical challenges of coming days, and press forward on scientific, mathematical, and otherwise tangible frontiers we can't even imagine yet. I'm a big fan of curing diseases, feeding the world through aeroponics, and whatever The Elder Scrolls VII will look like. But what shall it profit us if we gain the whole giga-world, and lose our proverbial souls? 

And yes, that's cheesy. I'm wincing a bit even as I type it. Like Koko, I lack the words or ability to capture it better, so I'm doing what I can to approximate what I almost conceive. Don't mock me, or I'll fling my poo at you.


Koko was just brought to my attention again, and I would like to comment a little. I am an open-minded un-denominational Christian witness and music minister. I am not a fundamentalist, as I am open-minded and believe that each person has the right to believe what they can extrapolate from the Bible without having it twisted and turned by any denomination or preacher. I believe that Koko is probably a very "gifted" being as her brain has been given a rare ability by our Creator. Just think how many others there are, and have been over the eons. we also have the unknown intelligences of the dolphins and whales, etc. People would like to think that there are intelligent aliens out in space, but to give credence to another species already on this planet? Oh my! Perish the thought! Who of us has the right to declare the one being or another has the sole blessing of a soul? Also consider the closed-mindedness of humans throughout history, with the denigration of the various races...Oh if we only could know the truth and make everyone understand it!


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