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Koko the signing gorilla: Great Ape see, Great Ape do

Written By | Jun 24, 2018

WASHINGTON: Koko, the world-famous signing gorilla, who it’s said understood 2,000 words, passed away last week at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California. She was 46 years old. Psychologist Paul Mcghee, an expert in humor at the Laughter Remedy, which researches humor’s effect on health, says his “Stage 2” of comedy consists of the “incongruous labeling of objects and events.”

Koko and trainer Dr. Francine Patterson. CBS News screen grab.

And this early, childlike form of monkeying around, it’s said, was achieved by Koko the lowland gorilla.

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According to her trainer/researcher of many years, Dr. Francine Patterson, the gorilla once playfully placed a folder on her head and called it a “hat.”

Talk of the town

René Descartes, painting by Frans Hals.

17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes argued that humankind was unique among earth’s creatures by virtue of language:

“For it is a very remarkable thing that there are no men, not even the insane, so dull and stupid that they cannot put words together in a manner to convey their thoughts. On the contrary, there is no other animal, however, perfect and fortunately situated it may be, that can do the same… in showing that they think what they are saying.”

Koko, many believed, disproved Descartes’ dismissive view of an animal’s ability to convey complex ideas. For many, Koko proved the underlying argument of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory that man is just another animal in the Animal Kingdom.


But not everyone within the scientific community is a believer.

Dr. Marie I. George, professor of philosophy at St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that throughout history…

“… virtually all the philosophers who maintain that there is a radical difference between human beings and other animals state that the difference lies in our ability to think and the brutes inability to do so… No researcher, however, ever thought it reasonable to try to teach the apes science or philosophy. The apes are incapable of grasping what constitutes an explanation, e.g., how the hypothetico-deductive method works, or that we know in an unqualified sense when ‘we know the cause on which the fact depends, as the cause of that fact, and that the fact cannot be other than it is.’”

Koko signing to save the planet

Koko the signing gorilla, Gorilla Foundation PSA screen grab.

But that didn’t stop Gorilla Foundation researchers from trying. In fact, they wanted us to believe Koko had evolved to such an extent, she understood the harmful effects of human-generated CO₂ on the environment.

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Just prior to the 2015 climate-change summit in Paris, the Gorilla Foundation and NOE Conservation produced a Public Service Announcement (PSA) featuring the signing gorilla.

Sitting before a dark gray screen, Koko began to sign:

“I am gorilla. I am flowers, animals. I am nature. Man Koko love. Earth Koko love. But man stupid. Stupid! Koko sorry. Koko cry. Time hurry! Fix earth! Help earth! Hurry. Protect earth. Nature see you. Thank you.”

Poor Koko came off sounding only slightly less simpleminded than climate alarmist Al Gore.

In a touch of high comedy, fact-checking Internet site felt compelled to ask and then answer its own question:

“What Does Koko Know About Climate Change? Nothing.”

The Gorilla Foundation admitted Koko was “briefed” concerning the tall tales of global catastrophe produced by dubious climatological computer models and worked off a “script.”  And being she was new to acting, the primate performer required many takes to get the emotional impact of her presentation just right.

Brilliant strategy or human – ape projection?

Biological anthropologist, Barbara King, told National Public Radio that Koko’s climate change PSA was a pathetic attempt to anthropomorphize – project human qualities on to – a clueless animal.

“Not even linguistically inclined apes comprehended anything close to the dynamic interplay between humans and nature that underlies anthropogenic climate change,” said King.

To be fair, that same criticism holds true for many humans who, like Koko, ape the absurd and exaggerated claims made by the denizens of climate pseudoscience.

Luckily, a higher form of life, President Donald J. Trump, withdrew the United States from his predecessor’s commitment to join the primitive, knuckle-dragging signatories to the Paris climate accord.

But for many others, sadly, what was true of the late signing gorilla Koko remains true for impressionable and weak-minded humans: “Gorilla see, Gorilla do.”


Top Images: Koko the signing gorilla, Gorilla Foundation PSA screen grab. Al Gore. TED talk screen grab.

Steven M. Lopez

Originally from Los Angeles, Steven M. Lopez has been in the news business for more than thirty years. He made his way around the country: Arizona, the Bay Area and now resides in South Florida.