Monday, September 14, 2015

Oh Koko!

We'll be sharing much more, in the coming months, about why Anne and I are a wee bit obsessed with Koko the gorilla. She's one of the stars of a project we've got going--a project that will likely diminish our chances of ever meeting the lovely and extraordinary creature.

It's because we've been stalking Koko that Anne and I were perplexed, but not surprised, by this recent piece in The Atlantic:

Click here for the article.

Our eyebrows arched just reading the headline.

It leads a reader to anticipate a conversation with Koko the gorilla, but instead it is mostly an interview with Koko's main human, Penny Patterson. So, I guess the headline is describing what that interview is about--a conversation about conversing. There's no other way to make sense of it. Yet, it's still problematic because gorillas don't converse. Not even Koko.

The piece begins with an anecdote about Koko describing herself with the "queen" sign. Morin, the article's author, follows it with this quote of explanation from Patterson:
Koko understands that she’s special because of all the attention she's had from professors, and caregivers, and the media.
And this is where, to my mind, any interviewer actually fascinated with Koko's mind asks: This is could Koko understand that she receives more human attention than most other gorillas on the planet? And how does she make the connection between this concept, this existence of hers, and that of a queen? When you taught her "queen," what was the definition? 

Unfortunately, this isn't the direction the piece goes. That nugget was a foray into her backstory about her sign language training and her home in California.  And just because the written product of Morin's interview doesn't dive into questions like those italicized up there, it doesn't mean it didn't. But if he did go there, why on earth didn't that gold make it into the piece?

More to the point, why have I never read an interview about Koko that asks penetrating questions about the stories that Koko's humans tell about her mind? Is that nuts and bolts stuff merely uninteresting fodder for readers or is it off-limits to writers who are permitted access? There's an answer at the end of this blog post.

But first, I have more, seemingly infinite, questions... How does Koko's language ability, and let's add Kanzi's too, compare to a highly-trained border collie like Chaser?

Is it categorically different, indicating an actually different kind of cognition?
You might be thinking about this video of Kanzi and saying, yes, yes it's different:

But how is it different? Kanzi is just pairing up two things, which is not really all that different from Chaser getting one toy at a time. It might appear to be more extraordinary than it is because in pairing the two objects for which Kanzi knows the English words, he behaves with them in ways they're meant to be behaved with by people.

That was a sentence worthy of a tinier brain than mine.

What I'm trying to say, poorly, with my human language "abilities," is that grabbing two things, like a soap pumper and a ball, and behaving routinely with one of them (like pumping the soap, which is what one does with a soap pumper) doesn't necessarily require as much human-like comprehension of what Sue's saying as a we might assume--that is, without thinking it through more deeply, or perhaps without trying to think like a dog or like a bonobo, or like a toddler.

Or like a gorilla--a gorilla who's arguably not a gorilla, given she's not socialized like one and given how her humans have admitted that they've intentionally raised her as a human and consider her one:

As they've raised Koko, they've narrated her mind as if it works like ours.This is evident right from the beginning of the interview portion of Morin's article. Patterson is explaining how Koko generalized the sign for "food", saying:
She would perch on this high spot where she could watch people come and go and she would sign “food” to them. It might mean “Give me the treat you’ve got,” or it might mean “I want my toothbrush,” or even just, “Engage with me.” She understood that signs had power. That particular sign got her food, so she wondered, “What else can I do with it?
She did? She wondered? And it was about how to use a sign in different settings to get what she wants? It's not just simply that it's something she could produce and did, in various circumstances? I think describing such processes as "wondering" would be giving humans too much conscious credit most of the time. But it's how we talk about minds. It's how we narrate one another's behaviors, and that of our pets, and that of whatever Koko is.

Often this is lumped into "anthropomorphism" and it's not all bad, but one could argue that it's to be avoided like the plague. If the goal is to understand how an animal thinks, then anthropomorphism risks being more of an obstacle than a helpful metaphor.

Whether the Koko project is scientifically rigorous, I have absolutely no idea. But Patterson's fantasy description of wild gorilla communication rings more of science fiction:
The free-living gorillas might talk about simple things like “Where are we going to get our next meal?” but here [at the research facility] there is so much more to talk about.
Death is one of those things. Here's Patterson's evidence that Koko understands things about death:
The caregiver showed Koko a skeleton and asked, “Is this alive or dead?” Koko signed, “Dead, draped.” “Draped” means “covered up.” 
Again, this is where my dream interviewer asks, What is the connection between "dead" and "draped"? It's even harder to understand the connection between a skeleton and draped. Can you help us understand the logic of her language? 

But we're not given that in this piece.  Morin does follow with "How would Koko know about death?" but it's not demanding a response that gets at the crucial connection between her mind and her signs.

We need to know whether what Patterson says about Koko's mind is true or not and no one seems to be able to  help us learn this. As the piece continues, my desperation for such a person escalates.

Patterson describes how Koko was making a sign that her brother made just before jumping off a rock. It took Koko's people a while to understand what she was trying to say because they hadn't seen her brother do this, but once they saw a film, it was apparent that the sign...
...means “take off” in the sense of “jump off.” Koko wanted us to take off our lab coats.
How does Koko's mind connect "jump off" a rock with "take off" your lab coats? If Morin asked this, he neither published it nor the answer. If Morin asked this question, then he is hoarding the gold all to himself.

The rest of Morin's piece is fascinating, and in parts it's heart-warming, especially if you have a soft spot for gorillas and for people who have those soft spots too. But there's still no conversation with a gorilla, or a conversation about a conversation either.

Read far enough into the article and you'll see what happened to Morin as he prepared to meet Koko:
Patterson cautioned me earlier to refrain from asking Koko questions. I was to let the gorilla take the lead. “She has that royal air about her,” the researcher explained, “and she doesn't entertain questions. Just like you wouldn’t question the queen—Koko is the same way. She’ll disengage.”
So, no conversation is going to be had with an ape, conveniently, because that totally capable ape wouldn't like it if he tried. Hm.

But there would be some lovely and touching moments through the enclosure's fence.

After recounting those, Morin reflects on what I've been discussing:
There was no way to know how much of her behavior was intentional and how much was my own or Patterson’s projection. Allegations of selective interpretation have accompanied ape-language research from the beginning. Still, it was impossible to be there interacting with her, and not feel that I was in the presence of another self-conscious being.
I don't see anything wrong with describing her as self-conscious while also doubting that her mind works like ours.  I live with a one-year old. And even before I had this baby, before I lived with an alien mind, I didn't see anything wrong with this thinking. Morin's final thoughts compare Koko's mind to an alien's, but his piece paints that alien as just another Hollywood humanoid.

When you share the link to Morin's The Atlantic piece on Facebook, the headline in the feed reads: "What gorillas can teach us about being human"

Well, what can they?

I think it's obvious from the article, and from others like it, that Koko is teaching us about our limitations. She's teaching us that we wouldn't care as much about gorillas without her fairytales; that we wouldn't care as much about these truly magnificent animals if they weren't furry humans. And that would be less depressing if we were any good at caring about actual humans.


David J. Littleboy said...

I liked this article. I think you've got it exactly right.

FHelm said...

Dear Holly Dunsworth,

Thank you for this great piece about a really great ape in a strange entourage. I've read a lot on Koko (R.I.P.), and this is a spot-on Classic, me thinks.
It's hard to decide what's more impressive: your approach of animal minds, your dissecting of human attitudes, your upholding the admiration for this impressive thing, the gorilla mind, while debunking false beliefs, or: your writing.
This from a Dutch ethologist and writer (who once liked to believe he knew gorillas).