Posted by: gdevi | December 4, 2009

Report on Koko: A Talking Gorilla

Dr. G. Devi

English 405

Report on Koko: A Talking Gorilla (Dir. Barbet Schroeder, 1978)

I hope you found Schroeder’s Koko: A Talking Gorilla thoughtful, informative and enjoyable. Here is your report prompt: please respond to this prompt in your own words in no less than a page. Handwritten is fine.  There are no wrong answers.


Dr. Patterson’s work with the gorilla Koko–teaching Koko American Sign Language so that now Koko can sign 1000 unique ASL symbols as well as respond to 2000 English words–is perhaps the most celebrated experiment in inter-species communication. Schroeder’s empathetic and more or less uneditorialized documentary raises important questions about what makes human beings uniquely human. Is it language? If so, does Koko deserve membership in the human species? What aspects of Koko’s behaviors strike you as human? You might have noticed that Koko generates and responds to language several times in the documentary without the operant conditioning of a reward. Does this constitute consciousness?   Does it constitute a sense of self, of thought, of behavior beyond instincts?  Think back on the extraordinary scenes with Koko seeing herself in the mirror. Do animals “see” themselves in mirrors? Do they say, hey it is me? Or think about Dr. Patterson’s comments about “compound signs” that Koko made–putting two signs together to signify a totally new entity.

Think on these things. What makes us human? Is it language? What does Koko’s ability to communicate with us in our language tell us about us, about nature, about language? Are we animals? Is Koko human?

Here is the Nature website on Koko. You might know that Koko even had an America Online chat a few years ago in ASL. Must be available somewhere online; I haven’t searched for it. Also some of the primate handlers who work with Koko at the Gorilla foundation filed a sexual harassment suit against Koko a few years ago; apparently Koko liked women’s breasts and would often ask the handlers to show her their breasts, particularly their nipples. Koko was not interested in any other body parts nor was she interested in male workers. Only female handlers and their breasts. Dr. Patterson didn’t intervene because she wanted to understand what Koko was thinking and doing.  Only in America would a gorilla be sued for sexual harassment.  Think of every dog that tried to rub against your leg!  Easy way to make a quick buck!


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