Sunday, April 14, 2013

Teaching a Gorilla to Hate Itself: Barbet Schroeder’s Koko: A Talking Gorilla

Is there an intrinsic difference between a human and a person?  Or, to put it another way, does the category of “person” expand beyond the category of “human?” The parliament of the Balearic Islands thinks so.  In 2007, they passed first-of-its-kind legislation to grant great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) the rights of legal personhood.

Now, what kind of personality does a non-human great ape—say, a gorilla—possess and how do we reach this determination?  Barbet Schroeder sought to explore this question with his 1978 documentary, Koko: A Talking Gorilla, which profiles the famous eponymous gorilla, who can communicate with hundreds of signs and respond to hundreds of words of spoken English.  But Koko isn’t the only star of this film, although she gets top billing; equally important is the scientist who trains and “mothers” her, Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson.

Now, Koko and the teaching of Koko and the research done on Koko—the whole field of Kokology—raise all sorts of complex—if not downright vexing—questions about science, ethics, and what it means to be human and what it means to be a person.  So let’s knock off some linguistic issues before we get to the really juicy ethical questions.

First off, does Koko understand language, or are her responses and performances of American Sign Language (and speech, with the help of a vocal synthesizer) merely the result of elaborate conditioning?  In linguistics, they make the distinction between performance and competence.  A parrot, for instance, can perform human language quite well.  It can say whatever you want it to.  But that doesn’t mean it understands the language, and thusly it can’t be said to be competent in the language.  The scientists working with Koko sought to reverse this equation; they argued that although Koko (and other non-human great apes) may not have been able to perform most human language (this is a biological fact; they just don’t have the vocal equipment to do it), they may still have had the cognitive competence necessary for a true understanding of it.  And this is where sign language comes into play, because an ape may not be able to vocalize words, but it can certainly sign them.

But is this signing indicative of actual comprehension, or is it just mimicry and conditioning? Throughout Schroeder’s film, we see numerous impressive displays of signing by Koko, and although this frequently comes with the prompting (and often the example) of Dr. Patterson, there are also cases where Koko signs in response to a merely verbal cue, indicating that she can understand spoken language even if she can’t speak it, and furthermore that she is connecting the meanings of the signs with the meanings of the words, and attaching both signs and words to their referents in the physical world.  Furthermore, Koko is quite capable of signing things unprompted to convey her desires to Dr. Patterson.  Now, I’m neither a linguist nor a biologist, but this strikes me as indicating true comprehension on Koko’s part, and something that goes far beyond even the most elaborate conditioning.

On a more technical linguistic note, does Koko’s ability to communicate (and she’s undoubtedly communicating) qualify as language?  She tends to communicate in very short little bursts, often of a single sign.  There is little in what she says that could be called syntax.  However, there are still hints of it, like in this phrase that she produced via voice synthesizer, “Eat food apple apple hurry.” Now, there’s certainly some repetition in this phrase, but it’s actually made up of discreet parts. “Eat” is a verb that expresses her desire, “food” is what she would like to eat (more desire), “apple” specifies what she wants to eat, the second “apple” could conceivably be said to serve as an intensifier, and this is especially the case with the following word, “hurry,” which is a command verb.

And who is she commanding? Dr. Patterson, her constant companion.  Now, I don’t want to denigrate Dr. Patterson (especially because she’s still alive and how do I know whether or not she’s litigious?), but what struck me the most about this movie (or rather, disturbed me the most) was Dr. Patterson’s ability and willingness to make Koko feel bad.  Which is an accomplishment in itself, I suppose.  Now, I don’t deny animals the capacity to feel emotion (I am not Descartes), but I suspect that the emotions of your typical wild animal are practical and externalized.  If a lion makes a kill, it will feel “good” about it, and if it fails to make a kill, it will feel “bad” about it.  But I doubt that it feels good or bad about itself.  But Koko, thanks to Dr. Patterson’s education, is capable of feeling bad about herself.  When Koko “misbehaves” (and from a moral perspective, there’s no such thing for a wild animal), Dr. Patterson tells her (both verbally and through signs), “Koko bad.  You’re bad.  You’re not good now.” And then Koko herself will end up signing, “Koko bad.” Now think about that.  Koko isn’t saying, “That thing that happened is bad,” or even, “That thing I did was bad,” but rather, “I myself am bad.” “Good” and “Bad” come to define not acts, but Koko herself.  They become “marks of identity,” to borrow a phrase from Juan Goytisolo.  Koko may be the first gorilla in history to feel bad about itself.  Dr. Patterson is not just turning her into a human, she’s turning her into a neurotic human.  And that just seems unethical; why in the world would you want to take a guiltless animal and force it to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Thanks to Dr. Patterson, Koko has become aware of her nakedness.  And if Koko is Eve, then Dr. Patterson is the serpent.

I want to close this post by referencing American writer Shalom Auslander’s short story, “Bobo, the Self-Hating Chimp.” Auslander’s story depicts a chimpanzee, Bobo, resident in an American zoo, who, in a moment of sudden enlightenment, develops all of the self-awareness and cognitive capacity of a human.  And almost immediately thereafter, he becomes deeply depressed and starts to hate himself.  The story ends with Bobo the chimp committing suicide.  Now, Koko is still alive and hopefully she thinks she’s “good” more often than “bad.” But for her sake—and she’s a person, after all, at least in the Balearic islands, and personhood comes with rights—it probably would have been better to leave her in a state of guiltless, Edenic ignorance.