Koko, the gorilla that knows American Sign Language, received a lot of publicity back in the late 70s and early 80s. She hasn't been in the spotlight much lately, however. Criterion's re-release of the documentary "Koko- A Talking Gorilla" allows viewers to re-discover the sensational gorilla that caused so much controversy.
The movie documents the efforts of Penny Patterson, a doctoral student at Stanford at the time the movie was released, as she works with Koko, a 6 year-old (at the time) gorilla who supposedly can communicate through American Sign Language. Towards the beginning, we learn that other scientists have taught ASL to chimpanzees, but it had never been tried with Gorillas before Koko, since they were considered too dangerous. Whatever your opinion on the wisdom of the experiment, you have to admit that Patterson is a brilliant, dedicated teacher and that Koko is an amazing Gorilla.
"KoKo" raises all kinds of difficult questions relating to the relationship between humans and animals. First, can KoKo (or any primate for that matter) understand language and concepts the same way that humans can, or is she simply displaying operant conditioning? This isn't any clearer now than it was 30 years ago. There are examples within the documentary to support both points of view. For instance, in one scene Patterson is getting a yellow sweater out for KoKo, but she keeps making the sign for red, apparently indicating that she is asking for her red sweater; this suggests that KoKo is indeed thinking with language. Plus, Patterson claims that KoKo creates new words such as signing "finger bracelet" when shown a ring. On the other hand, at one point KoKo makes a mess of papers and rips a book. Patterson is visibly angry with KoKo and asks her, "why did you make a mess" and "why do you rip things when I'm not looking?" KoKo just signs "me bad." In watching that scene, there was nothing to convince me that KoKo even had the capacity to answer a question like that. In this case, I would side with San Francisco Zoo Director Saul Kitchener who says at one point, "with Gorillas there is no right or wrong." In addition, there's a scene where KoKo presses buttons that speak words through a computerized voice. Supposedly, KoKo understands the meaning of the buttons, such as "apple" and "milk," and KoKo would press a button when asked a particular question. It seemed as though KoKo were simply pushing buttons and not having any clue what they meant, other than that if she pushed one particular button, she would get an apple- classic operant conditioning. One way to resolve the controversy, or at least shed more light on it, would be to have cognitive scientists who know ASL conduct aptitude tests, without Patterson's supervision, to determine what KoKo's cognitive capacity is. To my knowledge, however, nothing like this has been done. And as director Barbet Schroeder points out in his interview, there are very few articles in peer-reviewed journals on KoKo.
Then of course, there's the whole issue of KoKo's rights, if any. Saul Kitchener sees KoKo as the zoo's property. Patterson, of course, has a different view. She sees KoKo as an individual, and comparable to a child with Down Syndrome; disabled relative to the general population, but still possessing the same rights. But then this begs the question: If KoKo is an individual with rights, then what right does Patterson have to teach KoKo something that she would not have learned in her natural environment? Indeed, how does one go about proving that KoKo gave her consent for the experiment? One issue that came to my mind was, if KoKo has rights and harms or is harmed by another gorilla, then how would one go about holding the perpetrator responsible? If a gorilla has rights, then it has responsibilities, such as not to interfere with the rights of other gorillas. But if the gorilla has no concept of right and wrong like humans do, as Kitchener alleges, then the whole case of KoKo having rights collapses, or at least is seriously problematic. But I digress.
"KoKo" is a must-see for movie fans who enjoy thought-provoking documentaries. Plus, it's a great movie to use for discussion in schools at all levels.