RIP Koko. She Loved Kittens, But Could She Sign? (not really)

Koko the Gorilla died Tuesday night in her sleep. She was a remarkable creature in so far as she could communicate (to a limited extent) with humans.

We learned a lot about gorillas from the experiment of her life. An experiment, for the record, that should probably never ever be repeated for a ‘grip’ of ethical reasons that other, more qualified, people have laid out in the past. But it was nice to see the life of a gorilla play out; especially a gorilla who had a huge fondness for kittens. We had that in common.

Koko and I both love kittens

I would, however, like to correct the notion that Koko could competently sign the English language. She was an intelligent creature who, like many other intelligent creatures, could understand a limited range of words and signs, and reply with her own limited set of signs and responses. However, engaging her in an actual conversation would be near impossible, but I’m sure no accredited journalist would be stupid enough to assume that she was good at sign language, let alone–

CNN screenshot with title Koko mastered sign language

Well, that’s embarrassing, Elizabeth and Saeed. Maybe you just couldn’t find any of the widely available transcripts. Here, I found one, and I’ll even publish it as a google doc, just in case those other transcript links go dead (quite a few have, actually): Koko and AOL 2000 transcript

As you can see, Koko had a very limited ability to communicate. I mean, if you actually saw someone play out this conversation, it might even come off as comical 🙂

Koko was a remarkable creature, and, like many amazing things in this world, she doesn’t require exaggeration, fabrication, or blatant falsehoods to ‘enhance’ her life and legacy.

“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark