“It’s interesting that we became enthusiastic about ASL in the process of teaching it to a population that couldn’t benefit from it.”
Mike tells Sarah about a very special ape and the very problematic humans around her. Digressions include video dating, "Biography" and the terrible terrible inventor of the telephone. We start with a SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT about the future of the show. Both co-hosts understand the difference between chimps, monkeys and apes but occasionally misspeak.
For a transcript of this episode (Thanks Andrea!), click here or copy-paste:
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Koko the Gorilla
Sarah: Isn't it terrible that the name Donald is like Adolph now, like you hear it and you're just like, Ugh.
Mike: Are you ready? Do you want to get going?
Sarah: Yeah. Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the show where, ooh, no.
Mike: Although, ooh, no, is actually a pretty good tagline. That's actually pretty apt for a lot of our episodes.
Sarah: Let's just go with that. Welcome to You're Wrong About, the show where, ooh no. Yeah, I stand by it.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes, I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall, I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
Mike: And if you want to support the show, we are on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout. And speaking of which, we have a little announcement.
Sarah: We are undertaking the radical step of offering Patreon rewards for the first time ever.
Mike: We're actually going to give people stuff.
Sarah: It's finally the answer when you sign up for a Patreon is something other than you get nothing. We’re very excited. We've had Patreon for 15 months, and we're finally organized enough to be able to offer something to the people who are so kindly helping us to make this show.
Mike: So one of the things we have learned from meeting a lot of you folks through social media is that we get a lot of questions, and people want to know how we researched the show, and people want to know if things were cut out of the episodes, and they want to ask follow-up questions of like, what do you think about this new piece of information or…
Sarah: What do you think of the historic episode of The Red Shoe Diaries with Paula Barbieri in it? Something people ask me literally every day. Just kidding, not even once, but someday somebody will.
Mike: And we thought it would be fun to like once a month go through those questions and maybe do some extra research on stuff, or like do a little follow-up episode.
Sarah: Yeah. This is a place for us to kind of convene in a fun after party bonus episode and talk about such exciting topics as Tonya Harding’s episodes of America's Worst Cooks, or whatever other weird tangential stuff comes up and that you want to ask us about. And yeah, we're just excited to try some stuff out.
Mike: So if you don't want to support us, that's still super chill. But if you would like to hear us chat about random stuff and ask us random questions, please do.
Sarah: If you’re not one of those iTunes reviewers who thinks the girl host says “like” too much.
Mike: Those were about me, for the record. Those were about me because my “like’s” have gotten out of control.
Sarah: It's both of us. The problem is both of us.
Mike: If you’d like to ask us something about that, please don't. So yes, stay tuned for more news on that. If you're a Patrion subscriber, you'll get a message. We don't actually know how this is going to work yet, but we're going to figure it out.
Sarah: It's going to work some way or another. We’ll have fun.
Mike: And today we are talking about Koko the gorilla.
Sarah: I'm so excited. I do not think we've ever announced an episode topic that has inspired more anxiety and nervousness. I feel like some hearts are going to be breaking across the world tonight. I don't even know why.
Mike: People had this reaction of like, “We're going to cancel Koko. Like, fuck this gorilla. She didn't do shit.” Just to spoil it, that is not going to be the purpose of this episode.
Sarah: Koko is guilty of white collar crime and elite deviance.
Mike: We might ruin a couple of the humans around Koko, but we're not necessarily going to ruin Koko. Koko can stay.
Sarah: Well, this show is all about ruining humans. So I think that's fine. Yeah. All right. Tell me the story, Mike.
Mike: I mean this is a fun episode because like we've been doing so many of these true crime-y episodes and like, deep historical episodes and this one is maybe the first one that is really about what makes us human.
I mean, this is the first one that talks about biology and cognition and nature. It's just a fun little detour.
Sarah: you're taking us on the little Mike railroad. Choo choo!
Mike: Yeah. Do you want to tell me, what do you know about Koko the gorilla? What do you remember?
Sarah: Oh my goodness. Okay. So when I was a child, there was a book, which I believe many of our listeners will remember. And I bet you're going to be able to say it with me, Koko’s Kitten. Yes. Did you have Koko's Kitten as a child? Did you read that?
Mike: I weirdly didn't.
Sarah: Koko's Kitten was a book about Koko. I don't know if it was pre or post kitten that she became famous for her ability to communicate in American sign language, or at least that was what we were told.
Mike: It was both actually. She was kind of famous and then Koko's Kitten came out and then she was mega famous.
Sarah: It’s like being a pop star and you release, you know, a couple singles before you hit it really big and it's like, Communicating with Humans, number 17 on the charts. Kitten? Number one! Okay, so I remember that Koko, I forget where she lived, but it was somewhere in California and she had this, like the main researcher working with her was named Penny Patterson and she had beautiful, blonde hair and I, as a child and I would imagine many other children felt very intrigued by the idea that like, women didn't seem to be very represented in science, but there were these famous women of primatology.
Mike: Yeah, that's true.
Sarah: And so there was Penny Patterson, and there was Diane Fossey working with the gorillas, and of course there was Jane Goodall who I also loved when I was a kid.
Mike: Yeah. Women in STEM leaning in. There's also a lot of very interesting sort of literary analysis type literature of the emotions that it evokes in us when we see this giant gorilla who, even though Koko is a female, we sort of think of gorillas as male. Like, we think of King Kong. And then we have Penny Patterson who's this extremely petite, white, blonde.
Sarah: Fay Wray lady.
Mike: Yes. Yeah. There's just a lot of cultural stuff wrapped up in those photos, and I do think that is one of the reasons why this story went so far and so wide. Because there is this kind of Beauty and the Beast type images.
Sarah: Yeah. It's interesting that there's certain jobs that people like the optics of a woman doing, and primatology is one of them.
Sarah: Yeah. And so what I remember about Koko's Kitten is that Koko expressed via sign language that she wanted a kitten, or maybe that she wanted a baby. I can't remember.
Mike: She wanted a baby really bad, but they got her a kitten. They kept trying to get her stuffed animals, but she knew they were stuffed animals. Like, she knew that it wasn't a substitute and so they got her a real kitten. Do you remember the name of the kitten?
Sarah: All Ball, but All Ball was a Manx. The theory was that Koko picked All Ball because like her, All Ball had no tail.
Mike: And she liked rhymes, and so that's why she chose All Ball as the name.
Sarah: Yes. And so the story of Koko’s Kitten was that Koko wanted a kitten and got a kitten named All Ball. And I think, you know, as a child, to me, some of the appeal of it was like, here was this gigantic, sad gorilla mom who just wanted a baby and in a way, got to have one. And also it was kind of bittersweet because she was all alone, far away from the other gorillas. Koko's just a complicated figure. And I think as a child, some of the first complicated characters that you experience are animals.
Mike: Do you remember what happened at the end of the book? Did your parents not tell you?
Sarah: I don’t know if it was in the book, but I know that All Ball got hit by a car.
Mike: Yeah. And Koko mourned. And so one of the really famous pieces of footage that went around was when Koko finds out that All Ball was hit by a car, she signs “bad, sad, bad” and then she sort of hunches over and you can see the sadness hitting her. And then she signs “frown, cry, frown.” It was this revelation I think that animals have much more complicated emotional lives and potentially inner lives.
Sarah: That's so funny to me, cause it's not complicated. She's just like, “I'm sad. This is sad.” And it's like, Oh my God. Yes. Like if we didn't trust a gorilla to experience that emotion, then like, what do we think of animals as humans? Like, geez.
Mike: Well, this is actually, I mean, one of the main through-lines in this is the gradual realization by humans that animals are much more complex than we thought they were.
Sarah: And that they have emotions and that they know things.
Mike: Yeah. Well, this is a good intro to the episode because I wanted to start with a shower thought. I forget where I read this but basically throughout the course of human history, humans have always defined humanity in opposition to something else. So, before the industrial revolution, what made us human was our ability to make complicated things, right? Like, we can sew a shirt. We can make a sword. Right? It was always kind of us in opposition to the animals.
And then after the industrial revolution, we were like, “Well, machines can make all these things.” Right? And so it's like, well then what makes us human is like this higher order stuff. Like, we can play chess. And then 100 years after that, the computer comes along, and computers can play chess. And then we had to redefine humanity, almost going back to this more animal concept where humans have feelings, humans have creativity.
And so we keep redefining humanity according to what humanity isn't. And so the history of talking animals goes back a really long time and we've talked about Clever Hans on this show.
Sarah: Oh, I'm so excited to talk about this.
Mike: One of the famous cases was a talking dolphin. I think this was in the 1950s. There was a guy named John Lilly.
Sarah: Oh, I remember that. Oh, this is Peter. Peter, the talking dolphin. And he taught himself to make the “p” sound by putting his blow hole in the water and he could make a “puh” through, like, suction and he figured out how to make a “p” sound.
Mike: Right. And there's sort of the great tell of where this comes from and the ideology that's driving it. There's a weird link between this kind of research and eugenics, which we will come across a number of times in the show. So one of the things, this guy, John Lilly, who “taught dolphins to speak”, one thing he once said was, “Like the black races of Africa, porpoises are on the brink of becoming westernized.”
Sarah: No. Oh, my god.
Mike: I mean, you can't talk about this line between humans and animals without talking about the assumed gradations within humans.
Sarah: Mm. And we have a history of measuring skulls and having books about phrenology and, you know, the face of the lying Jew. And of course that's all come back so that's great.
Mike: And so I don't think everybody who was doing these studies was like, an out and out eugenicist, but all of these studies are kind of done on this rubric of like, where do we place animals on this creatures-worthy-of-moral-attention versus creatures-not-worthy-of-moral-attention spectrum.
Sarah: Good Lord. It's also really interesting that the metric is assumed to be like, how intelligent is this being? And therefore, how decently are we forced to treat it because of that?
Mike: Exactly. So I interviewed an ape researcher who actually worked with Koko for two years, a guy named Marcus Perlman.
Sarah: Oh wow.
Mike: And he splits this type of research into three generations. So, the first-generation was in the 1930s, these early studies of can a chimp be taught to speak like a human being? So there were these researchers in the thirties and the forties who basically adopted a chimp and like, “We're going to raise it as our son.”
Sarah: Oh yeah. I've heard of this too.
Mike: Do you remember this? This was a Chimp named Gua.
Sarah: And they had a human baby and they raised them alongside each other.
Mike: Yeah. They tried raising them together. Basically, that didn't work because their son Donald starts taking up all these habits from the chimp. And so, they canceled the project. There's another experiment in 1947, where another couple adopts a chimp named Vicky and they spend seven years doing all of this, like, vocal training and teaching it to talk.
And essentially after all of this time, she could say four words, mama, papa, cup, and up.
Sarah: I think It's fascinating that people spent so many years of their lives being like, “This chimp must vocalize and there is literally no other way for a being to communicate.”
Mike: Right. But so, this one was also basically a failure. I mean, this is so obvious to us now, but it was not obvious at the time that humans and chimps have completely different vocal cords. Like, the anatomy is totally different. Another big thing, apparently, I didn't know this, was that apes can't control their breath the way that humans can.
Sarah: Hmm. So that's why they don't write operas.
Mike: Right. And also why they just sort of do like, *grunts*. I did not know this. This is actually really cool that, as humans, without realizing that you're doing it, you're calculating how long your next sentence is going to be and then deciding how much air to take in.
Sarah: Wow. We're so talented.
Mike: Basically everyone is like, well, we can't teach the chimps to speak because it's literally physically impossible for them to speak. So, if only there was some way that creatures could speak without using their mouth and lips.
Sarah: Something that was invented like a hundred years ago.
Mike: So, yeah. So now, I mean, we have to talk a little bit about the context and the history of sign language. What do you know about this? Because you've mentioned this on the show before.
Sarah: I know an unusual amount about it, because I wrote… like I took ASL for a year when I was in grad school and I wrote the paper that I, like, applied to PhD programs with was about Helen Keller, because initially the language was that she was this perfect blank space because of her lack of language acquisition when she was a young child and the rhetoric was that like, you know, the best of Western civilization had been poured into her and she was reading all this great literature and she was morally very pure and it was just this weird paternalistic rhetoric. And then she became an anarchist and no one said a thing. She was like, I support the IWW and people were like, “Not going to talk about her Christ-like virtue now or are we?”
Mike: Right. That's always something with the social construction of disability that we never want disabled people to have, like, sexuality or political beliefs.
Sarah: Or radical ideas. Yeah. And so she went from someone whose intelligence was ranked very highly by these kind of paternalistic figures in American society, including Alexander Graham Bell.
Mike: Yes, because he, so for people that do not know Alexander Graham Bell, of course the inventor of the telephone, was like a pretty out and out eugenicist.
He took it upon himself to end sign language education in America. This was, like, his project.
Sarah: And to like, breed out deaf people.
Mike: Yes. He was convinced that deafness was passed down genetically, which there is a genetic component, but of course it's not like a one-to-one thing, but he was convinced that deaf people were genetically inferior and that all of them needed to be forced to join this sort of hearing and speaking world and that all sign language should be completely eradicated.
Mike: And this is kind of the story of American sign language, that it was invented in the early 1800s, but it was never widely adopted basically because it was stigmatized. Deaf children were basically encouraged to learn to lip read, to speak. Some schools tied their hands to their desks or tied their hands behind their backs so they couldn't sign to each other.
Sarah: Or put mittens on them.
Mike: Yes. It's like a decades long project. This casting of ASL as somehow lesser than, or like it's a less rich version of English or it's this sort of derivative of English rather than a language on its own that has different features in English, but like features that are built around the fact that it's a visual language rather than oral language.
So it has different structural components. The word order is different. I spoke to one of our listeners, Andrea Boyle, who's an ASL interpreter and she mentioned that ASL has different plurals. So the way that you would say I have sisters is you would say, “Sister, sister, I have” or for something like, where do you keep the cups? You'd say “Cup cup, where?” So, you don't always put the number in front of the word to make it plural. And so, these are the kinds of things that people often miss when they're talking about sign language as just this basic extension of English, which it is not.
Sarah: This reminds me of some of the themes of our Ebonics controversy episode because this, I think, is an example of standardized American spoken English, being either indifferent to the ways that other dialects or languages can improve upon the things it can do or can do things that it can't do, or, if not being indifferent to it, noticing that and maybe, like, not liking it.
Mike: Right and I mean, I think you see a lot with conversations about like, foreign civilizations too, in that there's this drive to see different cultures as like a degraded version of yours. I mean, if you read old history books written in the early 1900s, this just suffuses every single insight that they're like, “Well, you know, Indian society is like two thirds as advanced as English society right now.” Everything has to be put on the same ladder.
Sarah: Right. Like, the reasons for comparing languages to each other in a way that tries to find the superiority of some, and the inferiority of others has to be politically based rather than linguistic.
Mike: Yes. It's a language, right? So it has all of the features of a language. So like, deaf children will kind of babble in sign language the same way that kids will babble in spoken speech and when ASL speakers have a stroke, it affects their ability to speak ASL in the same way it affects hearing people when they have a stroke, and it affects their speech. I mean, this debate is continuing because it's important for people to have a language very young because it affects cognitive development because it gives them a language to use to speak to themselves.
And so this was something that was very deliberately denied to deaf children. So, I'm going to read to you – this is reasonably long, but I think it's just an amazing story – this is a letter to the editor that gets published in the New York Review of Books in 1986 in response to an Oliver Sacks essay about basically everything we just said, just like the history of sign language and sort of what the situation is now for deaf children: “Reading Sack’s essay was like reading a biography of my daughter. She was born profoundly deaf, a rubella victim in 1964. It would be fair to say that at the time, at least in New Jersey, nobody knew how to diagnose deafness. We toted Susanna from doctor to doctor and audiologist to audiologists for two years before someone finally had the knowledge. Thus, correctly diagnosed at age three, Susanna had already missed some of the primetime for language acquisition.
Once diagnosed however, she could at least start attending school for the deaf, right? No. The New Jersey School for the Deaf would not accept my daughter because her hearing loss was too severe. It sounds incredible. A paradox of oralism is that oralists only wanted to teach the deaf who were not too deaf. I wish I could say that Susanna's story has a happy ending, however, belated. It does not. She has acquired language at the second grade level, a little below the usual level for the profoundly deaf. She has great difficulty dealing with the working world, even at its most menial. For the working world, even now, does not sign. The greatest affliction is not deafness itself, it is having to be sequestered because only in sheltered environments, can they meet with others who share their language. The condition of the deaf today is better than it was 250 years ago, I suppose, but not much.” And so this is one of the reasons why it takes these researchers so long to be like, “Hey, wait a minute. There's a form of expression that is much more suited to gorillas and chimps than spoken speech.”
Sarah: Wow. Wow! So that's like a really interesting example of eugenecism and counterfactual, like, superstition around a real language that, like, anyone can tell is complex if they experience it for some amount of time. The problems in one area of science holding back another area of science, like that's science shooting itself in the foot.
Mike: Right, right. This is intersectional science being bad. And so finally in 1966, this couple out of the University of Nevada in Reno start raising a chimp named Washoe with sign language. So they start very deliberately teaching Washoe sign language, and immediately it's just like a million times better.
Like, it's very obvious that she's finding using her hands much easier than using her voice. And so by four years into the experiment, she has a vocabulary of 132 signs. So this is pre-Koko, but she's like the first chimp… like speaking chimp media darling. This starts getting magazines. This starts being on documentaries.
It's like “The chimp that can talk!” And the biggest thing that starts happening is she starts combining words. The famous story is that her trainer is out in a rowboat with her on a little pond, lake outside of the university campus and Washoe looks at a swan and she signs “water-bird” and this is exactly how human children do this.
And so the existence of Washoe and the fame of Washoe and this waterbird thing gives rise to the debate that is really central to Koko and the debate around sign language and ape communication for the next 30 years is there's two schools of thought about how people learn language. The behaviorist explanation is this B.F. Skinner stuff that basically, there's nothing special about humans. It's just when children babble like their parents, ignore it, ignore it, ignore it and then they say “mama”, and then their parents are like, “Yay!” And they're rewarded and they're like, “I'll say mama again.” And so, over the course of the childhood, children are being reinforced for saying words, not reinforced for babbling and so eventually they start to build up a vocabulary. They start to build up sentence structures. They start to build up word orders. This is how all of us learn languages with these like thousands of little, tiny reinforcements.
Sarah: We, individually, are like a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters, like, coming up with random combinations and we hit the right thing occasionally and our parents are like, “Yeah!” Okay. So that's that theory.
Mike: That's the behavioral theory. The biological theory or the sort of the Noam Chomsky theory – this is how Noam Chomsky becomes famous – is this idea that humans are biologically hardwired for language
Mike: There are certain structural elements that are common to every human language. The Chomsky argument is basically there's too many words for us to do, like, one by one getting reinforced, because then we'd all be like 27 by the time we had a full vocabulary that like, there's something about the human brain that makes us vacuum up word orders and syntax and grammar much more quickly than other behaviors.
And so, we have these slots in our brain where language goes and we fill those up very quickly, like without that much prodding. So, this is like one of the central debates of human development. And if you're a behaviorist, if you follow this reward and punishment logic, you're like, “Well, we can teach apes to speak to because all we're doing with human babies is just teaching them one by one words, words, words. And so we can do the same thing with a chimp. A chimp is never going to have the vocabulary of like, you know, a 65 year old or whatever. They're never going to be reciting Shakespeare, but like, you can get them to the same place as a three-year-old or a five-year-old potentially. Right? You can get them to do simple sentences. You can get them to start doing simple reflections, simply based on rewarding or punishing them for delivering certain signs.
Sarah: Hmm. It's interesting cause like, I do take a behaviorist approach to a lot and I think that that plays a significant role in language acquisition, because we can see that language acquisition is socially enforced, but I also, basically what I've read about Chomsky's theories is that there are all of these things that human children somehow magically know how to do at certain intervals and a lot of it relates to grammar and sentence structure. And my understanding is that if you ask, like, a two or three-year-old, like, what do you call a monster that eats sand? They'll say sand eater. And if you ask that same toddler, like, what do you call a monster that eats grapes? They'll say grape eater.
They don't say grapes eater. Like, they understand somehow inexplicably that you make the thing that it eats singular and there's like a million other things like that where they just kind of know.
Mike: And, I mean, huge spoiler. Whenever we see a binary like this, we should get very suspicious. When it's like, is it nature or nurture? It's like, it's very obviously both.
Sarah: And also nature affects nurture. Separating those two things is very strange.
Mike: Yeah. But so what happens as this debate becomes this like paradigmatic debate within psychology is every psychologist gets an ape.
Sarah: You get a psychology degree and they're like, “Here's your ape!”
Mike: Yeah. People start designing their own versions of sign language. People start making, like, computer keyboards. Somebody writes a book called Why Chimps Can Read. This becomes like the new hotness in psychological research is to try to sort of prove Chomsky wrong, to prove this thesis that apes can communicate simply based on reward and punishment. And this is how we meet Koko. At the time – this is actually interesting to think about – gorillas were seen as like, oafish, those sort of the troll balrogs of the ape world.
Sarah: That's why they're depicted that way in The Planet of the Apes. They're the cops.
Mike: Yes. Chimps are the smart ones and gorillas are just like these big dumb oafs. So like, nobody's doing anything with gorillas.
Sarah: And orangutans are Dr. Zaius.
Mike: And Koko is born on July 4th of 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. Her name is actually not Koko. It's Hanabiko, which is Japanese for “fireworks child” and like, right after she's born, she's ill. So she's basically taken away from her family because I think she has pneumonia, these other conditions. They don't know what's going to happen with her and they're really worried that she's not going to make it very long. So, she's kind of already isolated from day one and along comes this 24 year old grad student named Penny Patterson, who essentially shows up one day and is like, “I would like to teach this gorilla to speak sign language. I want to do this for my grad school research.” And the zoo basically is like, “We don't think this gorilla is going to live.”
Sarah: So like, “Hmm. Have a blast. Do whatever you want. We don't think he's going to be with us for very long.”
Mike: So she starts coming all the time, spending hours and hours there with baby Koko. She eventually moved Koko out to a special facility.
Sarah: Oh, so she and Koko bond because she's with her when she's really young.
Sarah: How old is Koko when she and Penny meet?
Mike: Koko was one year old.
Sarah: So she's like a primary figure in her life.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, this is like a mother daughter relationship.
And so very quickly Penny starts teaching Koko all of these signs. So by the time she's just a couple of years old, Penny says she can say 600 words. She has this huge vocabulary.
Mike: She's developing much faster than the chimpanzees as well. So all of a sudden, a lot of the emphasis shifts to gorilla.
Sarah: Oh. So is there this argument that, like, “Gorillas will become the super communicators of the ape world, because we must be competitive. The apes must compete for us in the arena of intellect!”
Mike: And so I'm going to show you a clip of Koko and Penny, like, relatively early in this process. This is very, very cute.
Video Narrator: “Research psychologist, Penny Patterson is teaching lowland gorilla Koko, the American sign language of the deaf. ‘Can you find something soft? There's something soft here. Yes. That's soft.’ With reading readiness tests used with human children, Patterson tests Koko's grasp of concepts. ‘Yes. That! Good. And then you say the tree. Well, you showed me the trees and that was wrong. Right. Anything else wrong? Yes, they have that. The lake and the dog. That is a bit weird.’”
Mike: Okay. What do you think?
Sarah: I really like it. I like watching videos of Koko. My sense is that Koko is communicating and also that she's getting bored very easily. It feels like this beautiful, huge, two year old. This is the kind of thing that you see as a little kid. And you're like, I want to work with primates also.
Mike: What's remarkable to outsiders is not just how many signs Koko can do, but the ways in which communication is revealing this personality. So she's very funny and sardonic. So, apparently there's one time when a trainer is trying to get her to make the sign for drink, which is sort of placing your thumb to your lips.
And they're trying to get her to do it. They're trying to get her to do it. She doesn't want to do it. And then eventually she does the sign, but she does it in her ear. She also very quickly starts making up new words.
Sarah: I remember this. I remember some of these. Can I tell you the ones that I remember?
Mike: Oh yeah. Go, go, go.
Sarah: I remember that she made “finger bracelet.”
Mike: Oh my god. Yes!
Sarah: Because she wanted to communicate “ring” and “drink fruit” for melon.
Mike: Yes! She also calls ice cream “my cold cup.”
Sarah: Aw! “My cold cup,” that sounds like a band.
Mike: And then “nectarine yogurt” she calls “orange flower sauce.”
Sarah: Orange flower sauce. Wow.
Mike: It's pretty good.
Mike: Also, a really big deal, she starts lying. This was not something that people sort of knew in any regular sense that animals could do.
Sarah: People who didn't own cats didn't know that.
Mike: So apparently, she breaks the kitchen sink and somebody walks in and is like, “Who broke the sink?” And then Koko, like, theatrically points to another staff member. Penny starts to notice that she's like, sort of eavesdropping on her that apparently Penny's like talking to one of the other researchers and she's like, “Ugh, driving to Los Angeles once a month is going to kill me.” And immediately Koko runs up to her and starts signing “frown, frown, frown, frown, frown.” And so they start spelling out words the way you do around children.
Mike: Like, “It's going to K I L L me.”
Mike: She apparently starts roasting her other researcher. There's another guy named Ron Cohn who's one of the other researchers with Penny and he's kind of, like, the disciplinarian. Like, him and Penny have kind of like a good cop, bad cop vibe.
So people at one point ask Koko like, “Who's Ron? What's Ron like?” and she signs “Stupid devil.” This is harsh. They ask at one point, they're like, “Do you tell jokes, Koko? Like, what's a funny joke?” And then she signs, “I love Ron.” Damn, Koko. Roasted!
Sarah: Oh, Ron! Oh no.
Mike: She starts doing, like, poems. So she'll say, like, “Flower pink, fruit stink” and these other sort of like, fridge magnet type rhymes. This is like a thing, she becomes obsessed with nipples.
Sarah: Yeah. I've read about that. When does this start happening?
Mike: This is very young. One of the theories on this is that she wasn't breastfed by her mother and so she's always had this weird fixation with nipples.
And so, like, Robin Williams eventually goes and visits her and he talks about how she puts her head under his shirt and reaches under his shirt for his nipples. And is like, “Show me your nipples.” This is just like a thing that she's really obsessed with.
Sarah: I mean, Howard Stern does that. So, somehow not newsworthy on his show.
Mike: And apparently Penny asked her once, like, “What's your deal, Koko. Like, why are you so obsessed?” And Koko signs, “Nipples are nipples.” Which is like, you know, she's not wrong.
Sarah: Koko is just like generating endless EDM titles. Right? Nipples Are Nipples by My Cold Cup.
Mike: Uh, Coco eventually gets to 2000 signs.
Sarah: I thought you were going to say 2000 nipples.
Mike: I mean, she's probably at more than that, honestly. They try… a big thing is they want her to have a baby because they want to figure out if she'll teach her baby to sign. So, they bring in this other chimp named Michael to try to have her mate with, but apparently he's much younger than her and they don't really get off on the right foot and so she kind of friend zones him. Like, they just sort of have a brother and sister vibe and there's apparently incest taboo among gorillas.
Sarah: Koko's like, I have a personality. This guy is not ticking my boxes.
Mike: So that doesn't really work and then they bring in another gorilla called Indumay from the Cincinnati Zoo. Koko chooses Indumay from videos. It's like old video dating websites. They show her all these clips of different gorillas.
Sarah: Oh my God. And so, Indumay is like doing his video and he's like, “I'm kind of a home-body gorilla. I enjoy a woman who wants to see my nipples.” And Koko’s like, “Yes.”
Mike: So they bring in Indumay but like, that doesn't really work either. I think cause he's also younger than her. It just never quite worked
Sarah: Because he shows up and she's like, “I liked you better on the video”
Mike: Something I can extremely relate to.
Mike: But so despite these troubles, this is when the sort of Koko fame goes into overdrive.
Sarah: I love that we're doing this, like, Behind the Music of Koko. It's like, “Despite her problems with finding a mate, Koko took over American culture as her success skyrocketed.”
Mike: Don’t roast my transitions. How else was I going to get out of that? That was my only move.
Sarah: No, it just feels like an episode of Biography.
Mike: That's all I got. It's in my… these two things are adjacent in my notes. That was the only way I could go from one thing to another.
Sarah: It's like reading Coal Miner's Daughter by Loretta Lynn. You're like, wow. At the same moment that there are personal struggles, she's topping the charts. There’s irony here.
Mike: So what happens is in 1978, she's on the cover of National Geographic.
Sarah: I think I have that issue of National Geographic actually.
Mike: Do you remember what it shows?
Sarah: I believe it was her and All Ball.
Mike: That's the second cover.
Sarah: Oh, that's her second cover. I don't know what her first cover is.
Mike: It’s very interesting. It's a photo of her taking a photo of herself. It's like, what we would now understand as a mirror bathroom selfie. She's holding a camera up to her face and taking a photo. And so, it evokes this image that is very important to a lot of the rhetoric that you see at the time that like, she is regarding herself. She's looking at herself, she's looking at us.
Sarah: Right. She has self-awareness.
Mike: Yes. There's a movie called Koko: A Talking Gorilla. This documentary comes out. Koko's Kitten comes out. It’s on Reading Rainbow.
Sarah: Oh wow. So Koko is having a Partridge Family experience.
Mike: Oh yeah. She's huge. I mean, she shows up on Mr. Rogers. There's this whole thing with Robin Williams, that he comes and hangs out with her. And then he does a story about her in his standup set and then apparently like when he dies in 2014, they tell Koko and she sort of slumps her shoulders, that, like, they had a real connection.
She was in the first ever inter-species chat on AOL, which is a huge time capsule, huge time capsule.
Sarah: I know it was with another human, but in my head, she's talking to, like, a bird.
Mike: And then, I mean, so much of the rhetoric at the time, because I read a bunch of essays that came out in like the late 1970s and the early 1980s about this, was a lot of the rhetoric
was this like, in hindsight, pretty lofty rhetoric about Koko's ability to sort of reason and reflect. That the idea is not just that Koko is delivering like, “Me want food” type of utterances. She's thinking about death. She's thinking about her relationship to people.
Sarah: She's remembering people she met years ago and grieving them.
Mike: Yeah. This is from a 1980 essay in a magazine called Omni, which is now defunct: “One thing is clear about Koko, Patterson has not humanized a gorilla. The gorilla has seized on a useful human system to express its own nature.”
Sarah: Oh, are they saying that, like, Koko is just communicating her true Koko-ness.
Mike: Yeah, that finally apes have a system of language with which they can tell us about themselves. Right? And there's now been this bridge built between the two species. There's this story that shows up in a lot of the old articles that Penny’s, like, cleaning up after Koko, like toys on the ground and she sort of mutters like, “Oh, why can't you just be like any other kid?” And then Koko sort of shrugs and signs “gorilla.”
Sarah: This reminds me of the way people will post alleged interactions they had with their two year old, you know, where you're like “Today my eight month old looked up at me and said, ‘abolish the police daddy.’” Or like, whatever. I think we do that. And I think that we really, as humans, have a tendency to interact with an articulate being and to become enamored maybe of a being who is, like, just articulate enough for us to map our own thoughts and ideas onto and I wonder if that's relevant here.
Mike: So in 1980, it all falls apart.
Sarah: Man, just like a Scorsese movie.
Mike: So to do the debunking, we're going to have to meet somebody named Herb Terrace, who is a Columbia university psychologist.
Sarah: Hello Herb!
Mike: He trained with B.F. Skinner. He's like a dyed-in-the-wool behaviorist, right? That language only comes from training. In the wave of every psychologist getting an ape, he gets this chimpanzee and as a troll to Noam Chomsky, he names it Nim Chimpsky.
Mike: So, the entire purpose of his project is basically to prove Chomsky wrong.
Sarah: I love academia wars. We've talked about this before, but like, they are just the best.
Mike: He spends four years doing everything with Nim that Penny is doing with Koko. They do the signs. They do these tests. He becomes completely enamored with Nim the same way that Penny is enamored with Koko and he's a true believer, right? That, like, they are signing. It is meaningful communication. But then he sits down and watches the tapes. So part of what they need to do as this process is log all of the utterances that Nim is making, right?
Like what sentences, what is he asking for? What word order is he using? They're trying to do a mathematical analysis.
Sarah: They’re trying to figure out, like, does he have a grammar, I would imagine.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. And so to do that, you have to be systematic and so he sits down and starts doing this systematically and in 1979, he publishes an article in Science called “Can an Ape Create a Sentence” to which he answers, no. And he also writes an article the following year, specifically about Koko called “Why Koko Can't Talk.” So this is basically the grenade that he throws into the middle of this entire field of psychology and primatology.
Sarah: Hmm. So is he arguing that they don't even have meaning, that they're not even referring to, like, something that the ape is looking at?
Mike: What he says, this is from a 1979 New York Times article: “New evidence by a researcher shows the apes may be doing nothing more remarkable than a dog does in learning to sit or heel.”
Mike: So one of the things that he does is he makes a log of all of Nim’s utterances. This appears in the 1979 Science paper and it doesn't follow any form or structure. So here's a couple of them: “Play, me, Nim.” “Eat, me, Nim.” “Eat, Nim, eat.” “Tickle, me, Nim.” “Grape, eat, Nim.” “Banana, Nim, eat.” “Nim, me, eat.” The longest utterance that Nim ever makes is sixteen words.
And so I'm going to read it to you. Get ready. “Give orange me. Give. Eat orange. Me eat orange. Give me. Eat orange. Give me, you.”
Sarah: Right. So he's like repeating the same idea many times.
Mike: Yes. And so what he says is that even in the youngest child, if you had a child who's capable of making a sixteen word utterance, you would never see something that repetitive and that devoid of meaning.
Mike: And oftentimes what you see with children is that they'll start out by saying these very simple phrases, but then they'll add things that add information. So the example that he used in his article is that you would see a kid say like, “Sit, chair.”
Mike: And then that would progress to like, “Sit, daddy, chair” or like, “Sit, me, chair” but it wouldn't be like, “Sit, chair, chair.”
Mike: That's not a pattern that you see in children.
Sarah: Also the speed at which toddlers are acquiring words is like…
Mike: Super remarkable.
Sarah: Yeah. Like toddler language ability is defined by the fact that you're constantly acquiring stuff and just like, you'll say a word to a toddler one time, and then they'll use it again a few hours later and you're like, how did you notice, remember that, and use that correctly? Like they're going through this, like, Spiderman mutation experience with regards to language.
Mike: Another thing that he finds that’s really interesting that you don't see in children is that the vast, vast, vast majority of the utterances of these apes are goal oriented, that all of this stuff about, like, reflection and jokes and stuff, it's like 96 plus percent of what they're saying, or just like, “feed me”, “tickle me.” You don't need language to express those things. Right? And so what he says– this is what he says about Koko. He says, “Penny Patterson is all too ready to project human meanings onto the imitative utterances of an ape who is simply trying to manipulate its teachers to feed it or engage in some kind of social activity.” So it's basically an exercise in just basic desires. Right? “I want to eat. I want to sleep.” Anything deeper than that is essentially projection by the researchers.
Sarah: And so then is it a thing where, like, Koko is producing so many utterances in the course of a day that some of them inevitably are going to kind of match the situation?
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. I'm going to show you another clip. This is a clip that demonstrates this, I think, really well. This is Koko and Mr. Rogers.
Mr. Rogers: How do you say love for sign language? How do you say love?
Patterson: Can you show him how to say love? How do you say love? What’s that? Flower. She’s asking you about your cufflinks. Is that a flower?
Mr. Rogers: That's a sun and my grandfather gave me that.
Patterson: A sun! It looks like a flower though. Can we talk a little bit about love? Frown? Oh honey! What? Love? You. Love you, visit, love?
Mr. Rogers: Oh.
Patterson: That was very nice!
Mr. Rogers: Thank you, Koko.
Sarah: Uh, there was a lot happening. That was forty six seconds long and there's a lot happening. So they're like “Koko, how do you say love?” and she's like, “Tell me about this cufflink. I'm interested in that right now.” And so they do that for a while and then Penny's like, “What about love Koko?”
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. You can also see that she's just imitating Penny. Penny's like, “Let's talk about love.” And then she makes them sign for love and then Koko does it and she's like, “Oh, see! Koko loves you.”
Mike: But it's like, she's just reproducing what Penny just did two seconds ago.
Sarah: She's responding to the physical cue. Do you think she asked to see Mr. Rogers nipples? All right, let's just move forward. We can’t dwell on this.
Mike: But this is something that you see a lot in the footage of Penny and Koko. One of the things that's really interesting is that Penny has never released any raw data or raw footage of her and Koko. So, research methods wise, I mean, this is a big part of Herb Terrace’s critique is that a lot of these researchers that are producing, like, you know, “This ape can say 150 things.” They're not actually giving any of the background data of, like, “Okay, we recorded her for eight hours. Here's the tape.” It's all these very carefully snipped together clips like the one we saw earlier that has a lot of cuts in it and you don't know how much they're cutting out in between. And so, what oftentimes happens in the sort of the few long, one-take clips of Koko and Penny that do get revealed is she basically says something like, “Koko, what color is this ball?” and then Koko will sign, “Drink” or something and she's like, “Haha, quit playing around Koko” and then Coco will say like, “Elephant” and then she's like, “Oh, she's kidding.” And she'll basically keep prodding until Koko gives the right answer. And then she's like, “See, she can talk.”
Sarah: So is it that, like, you can read it as her being just distractible and not focusing very well, but really it's like she's producing signs until she gets it.
Sarah: It's just, it's always very interesting to realize how we ourselves are being queued to view footing.
Mike: Yes, this is from this transcript of like the AOL chat session. This is very nineties. The user is named “SickBoyRe” and he says, “Koko, have you taught other gorillas sign language on your own?” and then Penny says, “That's a good question. Have you taught other gorillas, Koko?” And then Koko signs, “Myself, lip” and then Penny says, “Yes, she taught herself. That's true. That's very good and I think part of what that answer might be is she's taught us.” In other words, “Myself, lip” was her answer and lip is her word for woman. So herself has taught lips, perhaps.
Sarah: SickBoy didn’t get an answer, did he?
Mike: Exactly and when you go back through the footage, there's just a lot of that kind of stuff where it's very selective interpretation.
Sarah: There's a lot of grade inflation happening.
Mike: A lot of grade inflation. This also explains the “Water bird” thing. One thing that Terrace notices is that when they ask Washoe, like, “What is this bird that you see on the lake?” And he signs “Water bird,” she could have just been signing “water” and then “bird,” right? There's no indication that she's using a compound word there. She's kind of giving out signs all the time. She's like, “Boat. Water. Sky. Red. Fruit. Drink.” And then she happens to sign “Water” and “Bird” in that order and they’re like, “Oh, she's creating compound words!”
Sarah: So you think that this is at the level of just, like, the humans are tricking themselves the entire time.
Mike: I mean, the human intervention affecting this, like, this is another thing that Terrace finds in his research is that almost all of the signing that Nim is doing is directly in response to researchers. So, he almost never starts conversations. He interrupts at these sort of random intervals. Like, he doesn't listen and then deliver signs and then listen and then deliver signs. He just kind of signs willy nilly, like, whether or not someone else is signing at the time, which is another thing that very young children begin to understand that conversations are give and take.
Like, this is not a pattern that you see in children very young. The main sort of metaphor that Terrace uses, he notes that you can teach a pigeon to peck “A, B, C, D” and then a pellet will come out. Instead of “ABCD,” you could write on the buttons, like, “I want some food” and then when the pigeon does it, you could be like, “Oh, the pigeon can read. It's asking us for food!” But it's not. Like, the pigeon is not understanding those symbols.
Sarah: So, okay. So the argument is that for the apes, these signs are basically empty signifiers and they have figured out, kind of, that some of them will get a response they want at various times. But even with that knowledge they're kind of throwing them out a little randomly. This is like when I was in eighth grade and tried to teach myself how to sing the Chinese language version of Anything Goes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And like, I didn't know parts of it at times, but like, nope, didn't speak the language.
Mike: But that's the thing. I mean, if somebody told you, like, make this gesture and then I'll give you a banana, you'll make the gesture and whether or not you understand that that gesture means banana and can use it in other contexts, there's really no indication of that. It's more just like, Koko does something and then she gets a banana and she's like, “Well, when I move my fingers like this, I get a banana.”
Sarah: I mean, she's like, “These people are clearly very invested in me making these gestures that they are teaching me and so I'll just kind of cycle through a bunch of them all in a row.”
Mike: Yeah. And this is what Marcus, the researcher who spent two years working with Koko – I asked him sort of where he falls in this ongoing thirty year long debate and he said, “Koko is really good at getting what she wants.” You know?
Sarah: That also sounds like it's from a VH1 Behind the Music episode, like, “Koko is really good at getting what she wants” and that is my answer to your question.
Mike: I mean, one of the interesting examples of projection here that I think is worth dwelling on is this whole thing of Robin Williams. That like, the story goes around that Koko reacts to Robin Williams' death, right? And that sort of, she slumps her shoulders, she signs cry, but this was 2014 and Robin Williams spent one afternoon with her in 2001. And it's like, Robin Williams is special to us because he was in movies that we watched.
Mike: But there's no indication that he's special. Like, Koko spent an afternoon with thousands of people by that point.
Sarah: Has Koko seen Hook?
Mike: It's unclear.
Sarah: We have this pair of social connections with celebrities in a way that maybe, God bless them, other animals don't have. Like, you don't hear a lot about celebrity fish.
Mike: So what's amazing is, you know, after this article comes out, Herbert Terrace’s book comes out. The field implodes. So there's now, essentially, just one place where they're still doing this type of research in the whole world.
Sarah: So the ape language boom has ended.
Mike: Yeah. Herb Terrace basically killed it. This is a quote from Sue Savage-Rumbaugh who's one of the few researchers still doing this. She says, “Ape language research went from being a field of perceived intellectual excitement and public claim to one that, at best, should be viewed askance. Suddenly it became extremely difficult to have research papers reviewed, let alone published and funding for the major projects dried up overnight.” And this quote hints at the next section of our debunking.
Sarah: Oh gosh.
Mike: It says, “Ape language research has yet to recover from Herb Terrace’s public surrender to Chomsky, a turnaround that felt especially treacherous considering the inexactitude of Terrace’s own science.”
Mike: Dun, dun, duuunn.
Sarah: “Surrender to Chomsky” sounds very sexual, I have to say. Like, if that were a romance novel, I would read it.
Mike: So, we're now going to get a quote from Arden Neisser who wrote a book called The Other Side of Silence: Sign Language and the Deaf Community in America”, which comes out in 1991 and she has a really fascinating chapter of this book about the ape language debates sort of told from the perspective of deaf people and people who speak ASL.
So she starts her chapter by saying, “During the spring of 1979, I realized that I had been meeting a number of people, hearing people who are very excited about ASL, not because 500,000 deaf Americans use it every day, but because they believed it might be taught to apes.” This gets to Herb Terrace and Nim and Nim Chimpsky and the entire field.
This is like a sort of double debunking of this, that nobody who was working with the apes spoke fucking sign language.
Sarah: Oh, Lordy, Miss Chlordy.
Mike: So what they're basically doing is s a lot of hearing people who don't speak sign language, who don't know the structures of sign language, they're signing ASL words in just like English grammar. It's this, like, weird, pigeon ASL. This is from a Harper’s essay that I believe was published in 2012: “Nim was snatched from his protective mother and an Oklahoma chimp colony just after his birth and put into a household in New York City where nobody was a fluent signer. The household, a prosperous hippie family, modeled neither a sign language environment nor what was normal for chimps, nor what was normal for human children. They allowed him alcohol and marijuana.”
Mike: “He had no discipline, no intensive exposure to use of sign in context and Herb Terrace rarely visited. Nim was just a pampered wild animal kept as a household pet.”
Sarah: Why do people do this with chimps? It’s so weird.
Mike: I know! It's also, I mean, the field was just like moving too fast that apparently this guy, Herb Terrace just like, got a chimp without really thinking it through and then just sent it to a friend of his, who was a Freudian psychologist in like an Upper West Side Manhattan brownstone. And this Freudian psychologist lady apparently was much more interested in Nim’s, like, Oedipal complex and the fact that he kept, like, touching her breasts, even though she was like a mother figure to him, like that's what she was interested in.
Sarah: Humans are gross, is the lesson, the big reveal of this episode and, you know, unsurprising. Like, we're not finding out anything bad about Koko. We're canceling all the humans. Cancel humans!
Mike: Humans: canceled. I mean, one of the sort of sub-threads of this that nobody has like dove into is just the way that psychologists, kind of like economists do now, thought that they were qualified to do fucking anything in the 1970s. “Yeah. I'm a Freudian psychologist. I'll just raise a chimpanzee from birth.”
Sarah: “I'm a white guy. I know how to do it. I read four books last year.”
Mike: “I don't speak sign language.”
Sarah: “I don't know anything about it. So I assume it's not very complex.”
Mike: Exactly! And so he just puts this Chimp into this brownstone. Eventually, he pushes out the Freudian psychology lady in favor of someone named Laura-Ann Petitto who is an 18 year old graduate student and he’s just like, “Uh, you take over.”
Sarah: “I bestow my monkey upon you, Laura.”
Mike: Apparently, they sort of start taking Nim to this empty, bare classroom, somewhere on the Columbia University campus where there's like, there's no toys. There's nothing to do. There's nothing to climb or play on.
Sarah: That’s weird.
Mike: It's just like a bunch of language drills and instruction all day and it’s like, this is a wild animal. It wants to jump and play and use this energy. It doesn't want to, like, sit at a desk. One of the things that they say, like, it's really remarkable that Nim can lie and use manipulation. Like, this is one of the things that comes out of this study, but it's like, it's because he keeps saying that he has to go to the bathroom so he can get out of this room.
So Terrace, on some level, admits this. I found a couple of old interviews with him after his book comes out. And so, in one of them, he says, “I couldn't afford to pay permanent staff and so relied on volunteers. In all, Nim was taught by 60 different people, very few of whom formed close bonds with him.” And so, what he doesn't say in his Science paper is that they had to abandon the project because Nim started attacking his handlers.
Sarah: That's what I'd do if I were Nim.
Mike: It's like, this is a wild animal you guys.
Sarah: Do we know about the circumstances of these attacks?
Mike: We do not know, and I did not look them up because I think they're going to really bum me out. But the phrase “grievously injured” comes up a lot.
Sarah: Oh, no. Okay. And then what happens to Nim?
Mike: It’s really bad. This happens actually to a lot of the apes in these studies after the field implodes.
Sarah: They’re like, “We have no more ape money.”
Mike: Exactly. And it's really expensive to take care of these animals so a lot of them end up in terrible sanctuaries or sketchy, like, Tiger King, side-of-the-road, random places.
Sarah: This is terrible.
Mike: So Nim gets sent to this facility in Oklahoma, where he was born, which apparently is known among chimp people for really bad.
Sarah: What kind of… is it a zoo? What is it?
Mike: It's called a sanctuary but it's a bunch of animals in fucking cages. And it's like, I mean, it's just, like, this is the sad ending to a lot of these things. Like, Washoe died of a heart attack really young. Herb Terrace, actually, he's still alive. He gives interviews on this. He says he tried to rescue Nim a number of times, but he didn't have the funding to do it. And so, whether we believe him or not, it's also true that it's very expensive and so you would need some sort of infrastructure to take care of these animals afterwards and that infrastructure was never there.
Sarah: Has Penny responded to the “Koko can't really talk” stuff?
Mike: Yeah. There was a very long conversation between her and Herb Terrace in the letters to the editor section to the New York Review of Books after this article comes out in 1980. She basically says that Terrace is bitter because his own project failed and he never developed a relationship with Nim the way that she developed one with Koko and the fact is you can't get an ape to sign, like, to communicate with you meaningfully, if you don't have a relationship, if it doesn't feel comfortable. And so her argument has always been that he set himself up for failure and then he failed. I mean, this is actually something that Marcus Perlman mentioned to me was that at the center of this research is this fundamental paradox that to get an ape to communicate freely, you have to have a close relationship with them, but then, if you have a close relationship with them, you're not an objective researcher. And so, anything that that produces is not going to be credible to the outside world.
Sarah: Unless you have, like, reams of unedited tape that's being, like, screened in some kind of double-blind something.
Mike: Right. And you can't even really do double-blinding, like future researchers actually try doing this with masks, but then there's also body language. Like, apes are probably attuned to our body language in a way that we're not aware that we're sending messages.
Sarah: Oh yeah. Inevitably.
Mike: So, it's not… it just doesn't seem like it's very well suited to the scientific method. Right? And so the kind of double debunking of this is that Nim and Koko and Washoe might have actually been doing even less communication than we think. I think the biggest tell is this idea that drives me nuts that Koko can tell when words rhyme, like she names the kitten All Ball and she's doing like, “Fruit, sweet, meet, greet,” whatever. When, like, people point out that these are words that rhyme in spoken English, but Koko doesn't know spoken English. She speaks sign language. This is from Terrace’s article, only slightly less amazing than Koko's ability to create rhymes and to understand pig Latin is her professed ability to substitute a sign for an English homonym of a word she does not know. For example, Patterson says that when Koko had difficulty articulating a need, she would occasionally use “ne”. A sign that sounds like need, but is made in sign language in an entirely different manner. She has also, on occasion, interchange signs for I and eye, know and no, eleven and lemon, and others. The last example is particularly revealing. As far as I can tell, Patterson never mentioned Koko's ability to count or to use numbers. Why then would Coco sign eleven?”
Sarah: Hmm. So they are contending that she's learned two languages, actually.
Mike: Yes. It's just a sign that nobody really reckoned with the fact that sign language is a real form of communication and, of course, has its own rhymes and has its own puns and regional dialects and like, everything you have in a language you have in sign language, but the researchers were still coming to it with this very English-centric view of what the apes are actually doing.
Sarah: And a very oralist view.
Mike: Yeah. And so this journalist, Arden Neisser, she's working on her book about the deaf community in America and she, at the New York Public Library, bumps into a deaf guy who was one of the only deaf researchers to work with Washoe. So this was early. He didn't actually work with Washoe, but he worked at the same facility as Washoe.
Sarah: He was co-workers with Washoe.
Mike: Yes. And he says, “I wasn't there long. There was a very high turnover among the deaf. The gardeners wouldn't listen to anything the deaf people told them about ASL. They thought we didn't know anything about it and we're just trying to make trouble. There were three shifts a day. I'd go in, wake up the chimp, change the diapers, and put the clothes on. Sit him in a chair and warm up milk, just like for children. I put a little bit of milk in the cup and waited for the sign, “drink”, thumb in mouth. I made the drink sign, waited. When he made it, I put a few drops in the cup and waited for the sign again. I wasn't supposed to give any food until he made the ‘eat’ sign. I watched really carefully. The chimp’s hands are moving constantly. Maybe I missed something, but I don't think so. I just wasn't seeing any signs. The hearing people were logging every movement that chimp made as a sign. Every time the chimp put his finger in his mouth, they'd say, ‘Oh, he's making the sign for drink’ and they'd give him some milk. For part of the day I was just supposed to sign to the chimp about things he knew, things around the place that he knew the signs for. I signed my head off, but mostly the chimp didn't seem to notice.” And so even with these utterances of like “Me, drink. Eat, Nim, eat,” whatever, some of that is projection too.
Sarah: Right and so the rhetoric around this is like, “Isn't this amazing that we've taught these apes to communicate a language?” and like, “This thing that they needed, we’ve given to them, like Prometheus with the fire.” And it's like, no, we're forcing them to do this thing that they are just sort of rotely, mechanically doing because they're hungry and bored.
Mike: Right. And so Arden Neisser also speaks to Laura Petitto, this researcher who joined the Nim project when she was only 18 or 19 years old, she's now a researcher of ASL and how deaf children acquire language, and she was the only one who was actually taking classes in ASL. She asked Laura how she feels about the experiment now and she says, “It haunts me. I think about it all the time. All sorts of questions remain, questions I never thought to ask while the project was going on. I think the truly fascinating things about the chimp’s social and emotional behavior have not been studied. Nim had, I'm sure, an intact communication system above the system we gave him, but we never tapped into it. Nim didn't do anything with the signs. He only used them for requesting things. And even that is too anthropomorphic a description. He never used them in the deeper human sense of making a request. Nim could never quite understand he was communicating. He never used the signs as a cognitive tool. And I do not believe that he used them to think with. He had his own powerful, deeply wired, communicative devices. What we added was insignificant. It didn't really add a thing.” And it's like, yeah. He's a, I wrote in my notes, “apes are apes dude.” And so in the same way we talked at the beginning of this problem with kind of placing species and placing languages and placing civilizations on this literally one dimensional spectrum from sort of backwards to civilized, that doesn't allow you to look at just the differences and kind of celebrate the differences without having to add a value judgment to them.
So sometimes you have to remind people that humans are not descended from apes. Apes are not, like, a degraded version of man. Like, we have a common ancestor, but the common ancestor was seven million years ago. So it's not like we were once apes and now we’re people. It's that we diverged on this forking path and we've spent seven million years developing and so have they. So they are adapted to their environments. I mean one of the things you find in the biology books is that a very good reason why apes can't really learn sign language is because they still walk on their hands a lot more than humans do.
Sarah: Right. We hardly ever walk on our hands.
Mike: I know! Like, they literally use their knuckles to walk around on the ground. And so our hands are made for dexterous tool building, these delicate gestures. And apes are doing much more basic functions of things like holding on to trees and hanging from them.
Sarah: It's very interesting to me that also, specifically at this moment, you know, in kind of the sixties when Americans are really experiencing this cultural wave of like, did we get the fuzzy end of the lollipops compared with the chimps? I mean, chimps do wage war on other chimps and stuff, but nothing on the scale of Vietnam, you got to give him that. And I wonder if there was this weird, like, sick human impulse at this moment when anxiety about what civilization had done to us and what we had done to ourselves was at, you know, this spectacular high and when people were being very public about these anxieties and, like, sitting on the bus, reading The Population Bomb, did we have this need to take these blameless apes and like force them to try and do something that they could kind of do? And it's so interesting. I mean, it's so different from field work where you would potentially be going out and attempting to sort of observe the chimps and understand the conditions that they live in by experiencing them as much as you can. And just sort of quietly, like, watching the chimps be chimps.
Mike: This is… I mean, this sort of gets to the third generation of ape research that it's much more now about just like, descriptive studies. So like Marcus, the researcher that I interviewed that was with Koko, he found that gorillas actually do much more vocal, like, oxygen control than we thought they did.
Like, they'll kind of deliberately cough and they'll blow a raspberry when they want a treat. And so, you're not teaching them vocal control. You're just like, what do they do? And so this sort of over humanizing of apes and this need to see apes as some version of ourselves is really what brings us back to Koko and what explains the later years of Koko’s life.
Sarah: Oh gosh, what are Koko's later years like? Is this like the Motley Crue story? Koko's Sunset Boulevard years.
Mike: I mean, in some ways, Koko was really lucky in that she wasn't taken away from Penny and they were getting donations from like, you know, newsletters and various, like people would give donations to the gorilla foundation to keep Koko housed and fed.
Sarah: Koko was famous enough to be financially secure in her old age.
Mike: Yes, and Penny never left her, which in a lot of ways, it's like this really sweet, giving, caring thing. But then, we also have reports from people who worked at The Gorilla Foundation that, first of all, they ask everybody who leaves to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which is just not a great sign
Sarah: Unless you're Beyonce.
Mike: And then in 2012, we had an open letter from a lot of the staff members there saying that basically Koko is fed like a human diet and that like, she's not very healthy. Like, Penny will mention sort of casually that, like, Koko loves pizza and then actual primatologists and people who work on this stuff are like, “She should not be eating pizza, dude.”
Like, this is not what she eats in the wild. It's not good for her. And like, the sweets, like they're feeding her chocolates. Apparently, The Gorilla Foundation is like, “Oh, they're good. They have antioxidants in them.” But like, do gorillas need fucking antioxidants? Like, I don't know.
Sarah: The lack of oversight for working and living with wild animals is, you know, we've all learned a lot in the last few months about how lax that can be.
Mike: Yes. There's weird money stuff. Also, two employees sue because they say that Patterson made them show their nipples to Koko. Apparently according to the lawsuit, Patterson once said, “Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You're probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples.”
Sarah: Oh, so is this becoming like Koko wasn't actually asking for nipples. Koko was the excuse to ask people to show their nipples.
Mike: I think it's more emblematic of just the refusal to place any boundaries.
Sarah: Right. So you think it's like Penny’s devotion is arguably manifesting in her treating Koko like another human and it's like, it's really nice that you feel like you took these sacred vows to like give your whole life to Koko, but maybe Koko would do better if you gave less of your life to her.
Mike: Yeah. One of the things that's actually really fascinating to me, and I think this is like an archetype that we haven't run across in our show all that much, is that Penny Patterson is like, very obviously a good person or thinks of herself as a good person.
Sarah: Or is trying to be a good person.
Mike: Yes. And one of the aspects of her that doesn't get all that much attention is that she's a devout Christian.
Sarah: I've never heard that before and I've been hearing about Koko and Penny since I was a little kid.
Mike: I mean, she talks about, in the first years of training Koko, that she would sort of fog her breath on a windowpane and she would draw a little angel in it and then she would try to get Koko to draw it and then she would try to get Koko to sign “angel”. And part of her project has always been to prove that gorillas have a soul.
Mike: But it's also interesting that over time that drive, I think, has pushed her to sort of do a, like, the ends justify the means kind of thing. So, throughout the time that she's with Koko, there's these kind of very background rumors that, first of all, apparently the San Francisco Zoo actually asked for Koko back and Penny either flat out refused or she raised enough money through fundraising to buy Koko from the zoo. But it seems like nobody really wanted to have a big public legal battle about this and so they thought that it was better to just leave Koko with her.
Sarah: I can't believe we're talking about gorilla legal battles. I guess this was inevitable that we would get here. Go on.
Mike: And then Michael, this gorilla that she brings in to try to impregnate Koko, was actually captured from the wild. The story that Penny tells in her book is that his parents were eaten by natives in Cameroon and people in that part of the world do actually eat gorillas so that's, like, somewhat plausible, but then other people that kind of know more about the dynamics of the international trade in gorillas have said that what that usually means is that his parents were poached and that he was kidnapped and then sold.
And so she admits in her book that she bought Michael from some random guy, like someone she met through Barbet Schroeder, the film director, for $28,000.
Sarah: She went to go see a man about a gorilla.
Mike: Yes. There's a documentary that the BBC did in 2015 where Penny talks about Koko's inability to have a child and like, she breaks down crying talking about this and it's really moving and it's clear that she sees this as her failure and that Koko’s sadness is her sadness. You know what I mean? I keep thinking about, you know, these moments that she talks about as evidence that Koko knows sign language, right? If she says, “Oh, driving to LA is going to kill me” and Koko runs over and signs, “frown, frown, frown.”
And, in a way, it's like, you don't really need Koko to sign “frown, frown, frown” for that to be like, kind of a touching story.
Sarah: Right. And maybe it's that Koko is noticing your emotions and what you're putting out emotionally, because animals are generally much better at that than we are and she's communicating with you on a different level than the one you're trying to teach her, but it's still real and it's still happening.
Mike: Right. And you don't necessarily need to put it in this frame of like, “Look, she does grammar and syntax and she's pluralizing words.” It's like, maybe she's just intuiting something and she's expressing it to you, but we aren't necessarily tuned into the way that she's doing that. And so, you know, she set out to prove that gorillas have a soul and I think she did.
Sarah: Yeah, yes.
Mike: But not in the way that she wanted to.
Sarah: I mean, she certainly made a generation of children love gorillas.
Mike: I mean, that's a start.
Sarah: And I do think there's also something to the idea that, like, when she started working with Koko, there was this idea that gorillas wouldn't take to language, which I guess was true in the end, but that they wouldn't because they were, like, inferior to the other great apes or something like that.
And I think that what all these children grew up with as a truth, that is still a truth, is that, like, here's Koko, she's a lovely gorilla, she is best friends with this lady. She wanted a baby and she got a kitten and she loved her kitten and then she lost her kitten and she was sad. Like, I think that all remains true if she's not communicating with signs that she is sad.
Mike: Right. She's still telling us that, right? She's not necessarily telling it to us in the language that we've taught her or that we claimed to have taught her, but it's there if we want to listen.
Sarah: This actually reminds me of the famous Miracle Worker moment of Helen Keller feeling the water on her hand and saying “water” or like, “wah”. That didn't happen.
Sarah: She wasn't verbalizing at all. They weren't working on that at all yet because Anne Sullivan was like, “Okay, this child is deaf, blind. Like, I'm going to finger spell everything into her hand.” And so, the water pump moment is her realizing that the word being spelled into her hand means the thing that she's feeling. There's no verbal language involved at that point. She's not there yet, which is very interesting, right? We rewrote that to privilege the kind of communication that is meaningful to us and, like, that moment of realization still happened, but it's just a little bit different than the version that was made palatable for the public.
Mike: Oh, that's lovely. That's like a little bonus You're Wrong About.
Mike: And so on June 19th of 2018, Koko is 46 and she passes away in her sleep. The average gorilla in the wild, I think, lives to like 30 years, but they tend to live much longer in captivity. I mean, Marcus, this researcher that I interviewed, I mean, he said that there's no way to look at Koko or these kinds of studies with anything other than sadness. The existence of her, like she was born in captivity, she spent her whole life in captivity, it's not clear that she knew that she was a gorilla. Like, her whole life she was socializing with humans. There's no way to look at it as anything other than just like a tragedy. Like, her existence is a tragedy, right? Even if the abuse that she suffered wasn't as bad as Nim…
Sarah: But like captivity is a form of abuse and lack of other gorillas as a form of abuse.
Mike: What’s amazing to me is, like, the whole debate in the seventies and early eighties was sort of like, can an ape learn sign language? And it's like, “Yes, they can.” “No, they can't.” But like, was that ever the right question to ask? Like, I think of like, you know, if I'm kidnapped and taken to an alien planet and like, they teach me to speak their clapping-and-slapping-different-parts-of-my-body language or like, whatever weird eight-armed alien language they have.
Sarah: Yeah. I like picturing you clapping as fast as you can to try and get a little earthling biscuit.
Mike: But it's like, it's an interesting parlor trick, but like that's not teaching them anything about humans.
Sarah: So is it like, yeah, you're on this planet and you're clapping to get crackers and then they're like, “Look, this human can write clap poetry” and you just clap a bunch and they're like, “Wow. So beautiful” and you're like, “I just want a cracker, ya know? And also take me back to my planet.”
Mike: Right. It's not telling you anything about the ability of apes to engage in higher order cognition because our only way of tapping into that is to try to translate it into a language that we understand. It's like, it's the wrong medium to be figuring out the kinds of thought that they're capable of.
Sarah: I know all of our episodes are depressing, but like, this one is depressing in a different way. It's kind of more painful because I have less of a callus on it.
Sarah: Yeah. And what, I mean, how would you describe this modality of painfulness, Mike?
Mike: I mean, this is… I'm going to end with a really dark Kafka quote that Kafka… Kafka wrote a short story called A Report to the Academy, which is about an ape that learns to speak, but really speak. This is an excerpt from the Harper’s article: “In recounting why he had learned to talk, the ape explains to his fellow members of the Academy. ‘There was no attraction for me in imitating human beings. I imitated them because I needed a way out and for no other reason. And so I learned things, gentlemen. Ah, one learns when one needs a way out. One learns at all costs.’”
Sarah: In conclusion, education is a tool of the oppressors. There you go. Yeah. I mean, I guess the ways that we teach are informed by what kinds of intelligence we find valuable.
Mike: And also, I mean, it's a parallel to deaf people, right? Where it's like for a hundred years, we were like, “No, no, you need to learn to communicate in this other way. You need to communicate in this way that isn't suited to you, but we're going to make you do it anyway.”
Sarah: It's interesting that we became enthusiastic as Americans about ASL in the process of teaching it to a population that couldn't apparently benefit from it. Like, when there were people who were like, “We would like to communicate in a way that is, you know, useful to us.” We were like, “Absolutely not. We're going to force someone else to do it rather than doing the thing that's useful to them.” See, it's only worth teaching to someone if it's painful for them.
Mike: Right. And so we wouldn't want to recognize it for people that want to be speaking it. We only want to impose it upon this other, you know, what we believe to be this other spectrum of humanity.
Sarah: Why value a means of communication if you can't force it on people?
Mike: So, yeah, that's it.
Sarah: Well, Mike, that was really a bummer. Thanks.
Mike: It’s a bummer. But we didn't cancel Koko. You can keep Koko.
Sarah: And throw out everyone else.