Some scientists are more than a little skeptical of a viral video featuring Koko the gorilla giving a “speech” on conservation.
Koko is known for her purported ability to use a modified version of American Sign Language to communicate with humans, and her trainers say she knows more than 1,000 signs. The video, which was released during the COP21 Climate Conference in December, shows Koko signing about the importance of protecting nature.
Two nonprofits — the Gorilla Foundation, which oversees Koko’s care and training, and NOE Conservation, which seeks to safeguard biodiversity — produced the video. It concludes with a petition urging the COP21 participants to include “preservation of biodiversity” in their agreement. (Check it out below.)
The video started recirculating on news sites this week with multiple articles touting the importance of Koko’s message. But can a gorilla really grasp abstract concepts like climate change and biodiversity?
“Of course not,” Herbert Terrace, director of Columbia University’s Primate Cognition Lab, told The Huffington Post. Terrace criticized the video as “highly misleading” because “we don’t know what Koko’s trainer was signing to her before she uttered the various signs … attributed to her.”
The press release accompanying the video notes that Koko received an initial “script” to work with. However, the release also claims that Koko was “briefed” on climate change with an issue of National Geographic, that she was “very interested” in the subject matter and that she was “allowed to improvise” for the purposes of the video. The release says that “Koko was clear about the main message” and refers to her as the “voice of Nature.”
Additionally, NOE’s YouTube page includes a note from the Gorilla Foundation describing the footage as “Koko reacting after she has been informed about what is at stake at COP21.”
College of William and Mary professor Barbara King, a biological anthropologist who has studied monkeys and apes for years, believes that Koko certainly has the ability to understand and express isolated signs and strings of gestures. But “there’s a big leap between her basic linguistic skills” and the ability to grasp complicated ecological ideas, King said, and there’s just no evidence that Koko can do the latter.
Koko’s human-coached message goes well beyond anything that a gorilla understands or cares about. Frans de Waal
“There’s nothing in the published literature that would support the claim that Koko could understand these concepts,” King said.
Frans de Waal, director of Emory University’s Living Links primate research center, suggested that the conservation video hurts the credibility of those who study animal intelligence.
“Koko’s human-coached message goes well beyond anything that a gorilla understands or cares about, such as human global impact,” de Waal told HuffPost. He added that “stunts” like this one “have given the ape-language field a bad name, whereas there is so much more to discover if we just study what cognitively advanced animals can do of their own accord.”
As King noted in an NPR article last month, the video’s anthropomorphism is a bit ironic in a video championing biodiversity. Instead of celebrating the differences between gorillas and humans, the video gives the impression that apes are “furry versions of ourselves,” she wrote.
And that obscures Koko’s actual abilities.
“The problem comes in when we take an ape’s accomplishments and then … insist … on putting her forward as a wise old woman, and she’s not,” King said.
The Gorilla Foundation did not return a request for comment.