Ken Charlesworth

Reading Animal Minds

(author's note: the following paper is in response to the article titled “The Case for the Personhood of Gorillas”, by Francine Patterson &Wendy Gordon)

            Francine Patterson and Wendy Gordon claim that Koko is deserving of the same moral rights as human's posses. They believe this to be so considering the following premises: Koko has successfully used approximately one-thousand words to communicate with; Koko scores, on average, 80.3 on intelligence tests; Koko is able to recall the past and use future, present, and past tenses in communication; Koko displays emotions visibly and via sign language; Koko displays an awareness of self; and Koko modulates the signs she uses. Though these arguments are not necessarily false, it will be shown that they are not necessarily indicative of gorillas warranting the moral rights of humans.

            Upon further reading, one will discover that Koko's emitted vocabulary, “those signs she has used correctly on one or more occasions” (p.593), includes nearly 1,000 words. The statement, “one or more” ought to be read with suspicion; for this statement may just indicate that Koko used 800 of her 1000 words correctly only once. Consider this, if there exist some of Koko's words that were used correctly only once, how many times were they used incorrectly? Has Koko used her words incorrectly more often than correctly? These are questions that are not answered, potentially purposefully. What also should be noted is that the average vocabulary of an educated English-speaking person comprises 20,000 words, see, and can be communicated verbally. Even if Koko had 1,000 words at her disposal, she is still substantially distanced from a human adult with her limited vocabulary and her structural inability to produce complex sounds comprised of numerous phonemes.

            The next argument states that since Koko can score, on average, an 80.3 on intelligence tests, she possesses a form of intelligence resembling that of humans. If an individual scores on some IQ tests, including the Stanford-Binet, less than 70 he or she is considered mentally retarded. In addition to this, Koko required approximately 20 years of constant education to raise her IQ to the above stated level. When these two elements are conjoined, Koko's IQ score is less than impressive. It would appear than Koko has the IQ of a young child with a learning disability and not higher. Before one can make any conclusion about Koko's IQ, one must first consider the possibility that IQ tests designed for humans may not be applicable to gorillas due to the difficulty in determining if a gorilla comprehends such questions and assignments required of IQ test-takers.

            The third premise put forth regarding the use of future, present, and past tense in Koko's speech cannot easily be refuted. If it is true as Patterson and Gordon claim that Koko indeed converses in different tenses, Koko apparently is evidencing the ability to recall the past, live in the present, and consider the future. This ability has previously been isolated to humanity and was considered a hallmark of being human. Hence, if Koko is capable of this, then one ought to consider how this is possible. It is here in which the validity of Patterson's findings come into question. By what does she measure the past, or the future? What “correction” do the researchers employ if Koko is incorrect in her use of tenses? Is there any eliciting of a desired response, known as experimenter expectancy? Essentially, does there exist any experimenter biases that have not been reported in Patterson and Gordon's writing? To answer these questions, outside observers are needed to monitor Patterson's research methods.

            The claim has been made that Koko is able to express emotions in her signs and in other behavior. The question that should follow is what is Patterson's operational definition of expressed emotion? If Koko signs “that bad frown sorry” (p.600), is this definitive proof of expressing emotion? Or is Koko imitating what had been conveyed to her during her years of training, that when death or pain occur, it is appropriate to respond with negative words related to the situation? It would be interesting to know if the researchers rewarded Koko for stating the correct emotional words for a particular situation, if they did, a confound or methodological error, is being committed that will corrupt the validity of the findings. Specifically, if this is so, then what is occurring is operant conditioning, as is evidenced when a rat is conditioned to press a bar to receive a food pellet. Very few individuals will claim that a rat warrants equal moral rights as a human. And if operant conditioning is occurring, then Koko is no more than a large rat, so to speak.

            Koko's apparent awareness of herself is intriguing, but not convincing. The various cognitive correlates mentioned, such as “…personal pronouns, references to their own internal and emotional states…” (p.602), are not necessarily indicative of self-awareness. The one “test” that is cited is questionable. In the control phase, when the washcloth was wiped across Koko's forehead leaving no paint, Koko was reported to have touched her forehead once before the mirror during each of the 10-minute sessions. During the experimental phase, when the washcloth left a pink paint on Koko's forehead, Koko was reported to have touched her forehead 47 times during the one 10-minute session. What does this indicate? Koko is able to distinguish a novelty in her environment, nothing more. Though she explores the novelty in her environment, she is not necessarily indicating that she possess self-awareness. Essentially I am arguing that this test is flawed in its internal validity.

            The modulation of sign language by Koko is quite a remarkable feat for a gorilla, for this evidences ingenuity and the application of that ingenuity. Yet, even developmentally disabled children can do this, and practically all adults would assent that children have not reached their full capacity yet; they have yet to reach adulthood. So, here is a gorilla that is an adult by age, but a developmentally disabled child by mental capacity.

            The question now is, can one claim that a gorilla that may evidence some qualities customarily associated with humanity, the legitimacy of which claims has already been brought into question, be awarded the rights of humankind? Considering that most of Patterson and Gordon's claims have been refuted, Patterson and Gordon no longer have solid ground to argue their belief that Koko warrants equal rights as humans, at least with their current arguments. It seems the uniqueness of humanity has survived another day.