Monday, July 11, 2005

Koko turns 34

July 4th was the 34th birthday of Koko, a remarkable gorilla who has learned American sign language (Koko has a vocabulary of over 1000 signs.) I had not noticed that Koko's birthday falls on the day Americans celebrate their independence, but it seems poetically fitting that a creature who provides the strongest case for granting gorillas greater "personal" rights, what we call liberty, would have a birthday that falls on this date. Anyone who has seen the footage of Koko mourning the loss of her pet kitten knows what I'm talking about.

For more information on Koko and the effort to protect gorillas from extinction check out the Gorilla Foundation. And something else interesting, to me at least, was this forum discussion at the Secular Web in which one of Koko's caretakers, under the moniker 'Biff the unclean', answered questions about his work with Koko.


John Lombard said...

I'm well behind the animal rights cause, but I'm a skeptic on the ability of animals to learn language. From what I know, animals (even gorillas) don't learn language in the same sense as humans -- they can be taught to associate symbols, but I suspect they may be responding to cues from their handlers rather than using symbols to express demands. Sort of like what happens with facilitated communication -- they see what they want to.

Hume's Ghost said...

Skim through the Secular Web discussion I linked to when you get a chance. The caretaker addresses your points. He says that every person fluent in sign language that has visited Koko has left the facility with the belief that she understands language.

I'm pretty sure there is another thread over there where he debates the issue with someone - I'll see if I can dig it up later on.

Hume's Ghost said...

Found it. The debate is in the same thread I linked - it starts on page 10 with mopc's post.

John Lombard said...

I'll go through it when I have time. I did a bit of linguistics and we learnt that the language faculty was uniquely human -- there's even been speculation that the language faculty might be a "perfect" system because it has to do so many things. But if these people are right it gives credence to the idea that language is a gradient -- and that, in theory, a more sophisticated language faculty than the one used by humans is possible.