Saturday, December 09, 2006

Koko Cabanna

Continuing my discussion of whether animals think like humans, I'm going to look at one of the best cases: Koko the talking gorilla. Gorillas are genetically much closer to humans, than say cats or dogs and if any animal is capable of human-like thinking, then it really should be one of our ape cousins. Now Koko has apparently been taught sign language for many years and it is claimed has a vocabulary of about 2000 words.

Let's look at an extract of a 'webchat' that Koko took part in, a few years ago:

PENNY: We're going to be on the phone with a lot of people who are going to ask us questions...

KOKO: Nipple. (Koko sometimes uses 'nipple' as a 'sounds like' for 'people.')

PENNY: ...about you and about me. . . Lots of people.

KOKO: That red pink. (Indicating Penny's shirt.)

PENNY: That red pink. Yes, right!

KOKO: Hurry good.

PENNY: This is red—this is pink, exactly.

KOKO: Pink. (Koko reaches for Penny's pocket which contains treats.)

PENNY: OK. That's the kind of things they are going to ask.

KOKO: Good.

PENNY: Questions about colors or how you're feeling. OK?

KOKO: That red. (Indicating her own hair.)

PENNY: Honey, this is black.

Read the whole thing and you'll see that there is a great deal of interpretation on the part of the trainer. The human reads much more into Koko's responses than appears justified. Over at the CSICOP site there is an article which argues much the same thing. What we have is anthropomorphism on the part of the human, as opposed to human-thinking on the part of the gorilla.

And so, if a gorilla taught sign language isn't really thinking like you or I, what hope is there for the humble pets? My opinion is none and in a future post, I'll discuss a talking, 'psychic' pet parrot. Impressive? What do you think?