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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Koko's Commercial and the State of Ape Language Research

Yesterday, on my twitter feed, there was much ado about Koko the Gorilla's appearance in a commercial about climate change sponsored by the French conservation organization, NOE. Among the primatologists, there was now a move to distance themselves from this public service announcement, not because they disagreed with the message, but because they believed the messenger did not actually mean what she said, and that quite possibly she was coached to say it, and that her words were elicited in other ways, then edited together to make it seem she said something other than what she actually said. Here is the Huffington Post article that deals with the reactions of primatologists.

Now, to tell you he truth, this video of Koko had appeared in my Facebook feed before, and I was sure it was a hoax. Sickened by the message and by the appropriation of Koko's persona, I had no idea this was the real Koko. I thought it was somebody pretending to be Koko.

But now that it has been confirmed that it was the real Koko, I went back and watched the video. And when he saw me watching it, Bow insisted that he wanted to see it, too.

I tend to agree, from watching the video, that there is no way to tell whether Koko actually said this, and I think it makes sense to take it with a grain of salt, as we take all Public Service Announcements. I mean, if we see a famous child  actress on a PSA tell us to not be a fool and to stay in school, do we assume those are her real words? Do we think she thought of that rhyme all by herself? Do we think she personally agrees with the message? Or do we think: Hey, she probably got paid to say that. After all, she is an actress.

A performance by an actress in a commercial or in a play, movie or TV show does not indicate what she actually thinks. It also, believe it or not, does not prove that she has mastered human syntax. The words were written for her by somebody else. If she flubs a line, they do another take.

Why are these established  primatologists bending over backwards to distance themselves from a PSA with a gorilla delivering the message? Is it because they are worried that people will confuse a commercial with real life? Or is it because they think that the Gorilla Foundation should not allow Koko to work for a living? Or is it because of the bizarre "personhood" controversy that has arisen around apes who can use human language?

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Mastering syntax does not guarantee intelligence. Many people with a low IQ have mastered syntax.
  • Intelligence itself does not guarantee that someone is able to give legal consent, which requires not only an understanding of the words in a contract, but also an ability to deal with long term consequences of entering into an agreement.
  • Neither syntax nor a high IQ imply the emotional maturity to lead an independent life in human society. Many very smart people who speak their native language perfectly require a legal guardian.
  • Impulse control is an issue for many, including humans and other apes. An inability to control impulses can require confinement away from others, even when the individual is intelligent, articulate and otherwise emotionally mature.
At present, we give personhood rights just based on being human to many who cannot live free among us, and they receive government support. Whether this is the correct thing to do or not is a political question. Whether we want to extend such rights to other apes who would need the same level of support is also a political question. It is not simply a matter of proving the many intellectual achievements of speaking apes.

I think it is a good idea to separate politics from science as much as possible. When we see the president crying on TV, we take that with a grain of salt, knowing he is a politician, and somebody probably wrote his speech, and he gets paid to say that. We should do the same when a working ape is trying to earn a living by appearing on a commercial.

Should animals other than humans be allowed to work for a living? Definitely. Is there anything wrong with an ape appearing in a commercial? In my opinion, no, there is not. But let's not get all distracted by the acting to the point where we take the rehearsed words seriously or forget that the author of the words and the one aping those words are not the same person. 

This in no way takes away from spontaneous linguistic output of the same apes when they are not acting. If we want to know whether the president has mastered syntax, we need to catch him in a spontaneous language stream and not try to determine this while he is giving a public speech.

That so many primatologists confuse the question of linguistic competence with other issues is a problem for ape language studies. It does not matter whether Koko cares about climate change in order to assess her language skills. And it's not in the context of a political commercial that we want to evaluate her linguistic competence -- or anyone else's. 


  1. I always thought people were acting in commercials, and so are animals, which have an animal trainer to show them how to do things. I mean were people upset by the movie air buddy if they found out the dog would rather be chewing on a bone than playing basketball, if he was doing what he wanted to do.

    1. Hi, Julia. I think most people don't have any trouble telling apart commercially filmed sequences from real life. I'm just surprised that anyone took that commercial seriously or that anyone would want to say that it proves anything -- positive or negative -- about Koko's language competence.

    2. If people can tell these things apart, then maybe the tado about Koko is much ado about nothing. As for public service announcements, I never really took most of these seriously. I liked the ones encouraging people to read, but most of the others were just over the top. Ironically, a lot of the teen stars and celebs who told people not to drink or smoke in psas were doing those same activities. There is a joke about this in the movie I Could Never Be Your Woman, where one character plays a teen telling kids not to smoke, and then the moment the camera goes off of her, she lights up a cigarette.

    3. Yes, I agree. Most PSAs are clearly propaganda, and most people, even children and teens, are smart enough not to fall for that.