It disturbs me no more to find men base, unjust, or selfish than to see apes mischievous, wolves savage, or the vulture ravenous.

- Jean-Paul Sartre


Waiting for a Turn

Olga, a 10-month-old orang-utan, drinks milk from a bottle as 6-month-old Ricki waits his turn at a zoo in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.  The pair are 2 of 7 orang-utans soon to be freed at a national park in Kalimantan.  Asia's great apes are confined to two islands, Sumatra and Kalimantan.  The orang-utan population in Indonesia has fallen by about 50% during the past 10 years, as thousands are believed to have died in forest fires.

Source: The Dominion 31 July 2000

The Peacemakers: Aggression and Culture

A Non-Human Example of the Cultural Transmission of Social Norms

Is aggressive behaviour innate or learned?  In baboons, it seems, it is learned.  A surprising natural experiment, reported in Public Library of Science Biology, an online journal, suggests that the level of violence in baboon society is culturally determined.

The story begins in 1983, in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya.  Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist at Stanford University, was five years into a study of the reserve's olive baboon population when one of the troops he had been observing suffered an outbreak of tuberculosis which killed half of its males.  Since the source of the infection was a garbage dump being used as a food supply, and control of this dump was contested with another troop, the males who became infected and died were the more aggressive individuals in the troop - that is, those best fitted to the task of fighting for food.  The result was that the level of aggressive behaviour within the troop dropped off markedly.

Dr Sapolsky was understandably upset by what had happened and decided to start again with another troop - one with a more normal sex ratio and social structure.  So he turned his attention to a troop 50km away until 1993, when he wanted to show his new colleague (and wife) Lisa Share his original research site.  To his surprise, 10 years after the natural cull of aggressive individuals had started, the behaviour of the troop's males was still pacific.  The reason for that surprise was that every male who had been in the troop in 1983 - not just the ones who had died of tuberculosis - had gone.  All of the troop's males were incomers.  (Male olive baboons seek their fortunes in troops other than the ones they have been born into.)

Dr Sapolsky and Dr Share decided to investigate further.  They began to observe Forest Troop (as Dr Sapolsky dubbed his original subjects) in detail.  They compared the troop's behaviour both to what it had been before the outbreak, and to that of the other troops they had been studying.  Some things had not changed.  Top-rank males in all groups stayed boss for roughly the same length of time - a year.  So-called approach-avoidance interactions between males, in which a high-ranking male displaces a lower-ranking one without any overt violence, happened about as often in one group as in another.  But the detailed pattern of these interactions was different.  In the new Forest Troop, males tend to "pick on individuals their own size", attempting to displace those of adjacent rank, whereas in more traditional groups top monkeys tend to bully those at least two ranks below them - animals that have no chance of fighting back.  The new Forest males are also less likely to launch attacks on females.

Subordinate males in the new Forest Troop are under less physiological stress, too.  When Dr Sapolsky had sampled blood in the pre-outbreak Forest Troop, he had found high levels of hormones called glucocorticoids, which are released in response to stress.  Not so in the new Forest Troop.  Glucocorticoid levels in its members are low.  In fact, even the act of sampling blood had differentiated high- from low-ranking males in the old days.  Dominant males suffered no altered behaviour, whereas subordinates scratched themselves, shook their heads incessantly and ground their teeth.  No longer.

Cultural transmission of behaviour has been seen in many animals besides humans.  But until now, it has concerned what foodstuffs are good to eat, how to make and use tools, and how to communicate (many bird songs, for example, have learned regional dialects).  Cultural transmission of, for want of a better word, manners, has never before been observed outside Homo sapiens.

How it came about is still a bit of a mystery, though when Dr Sapolsky and Dr Share weighed the evidence they felt it supported the idea that males new to the troop somehow picked up on how they were expected to behave by watching what was going on, and then found life easier if they did likewise.  It also seemed to have a lot more to do with how the Forest females treated newcomers, than their treatment by existing Forest males.  The females, it seems, like the new arrangement and are keen to preserve it.

However, such pacific behaviour is unusual in baboon troops, which suggests it is an unstable arrangement.  In particular, it might be overthrown if several males with different ideas arrived at the same time.  Dr Sapolsky and Dr Share are therefore watching the troop intently, to see what, if anything, causes its males to revert to the tried and tested macho methods of normal baboon life.

Source: www.economist.com 15 April 2004

Rats Influenced by the Kindness of Strangers

If rats benefit from the kindness of strangers they are more likely to assist an unfamiliar rat in future.  In doing so, they provide the first evidence of an unusual form of altruism that appears to violate evolutionary theory.  Claudia Rutte and Michael Taborsky of the University of Berne, Switzerland, trained rats to pull a lever that released food for their partner in the next cage.  If the rats subsequently received snacks released by lever-pulling strangers in neighbouring cages, they were more likely to lever-pull and so feed another unfamiliar rat in the future.  In other words, the rats became altruistic in response to a general level of cooperation in the population.

Theoretically, such "generalised reciprocity" shouldn't exist.  In large groups, dirty rats will take advantage of helpful strangers and offer nothing in return.  It persists, says Taborsky, because exploited animals move away.  "An animal is more likely to leave the group if it didn't receive cooperation in the past," he says.  "This leads to cooperative and uncooperative groups in a population."  If cooperative groups are better at exploiting the environment, generalised reciprocity remains in the population.

PLoS Biology, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050196

Source: newscientist.com issue 2611 of New Scientist magazine 6 July 2007 page 17

Impulsivity Control

by Robert Sapolsky

(an excerpt of an Edge interview)

As a 20-year old doing field research in Africa, my sense of manly competence was not terribly well-glued into shape.  One baboon was there from the very first year, a wonderful guy I named Benjamin.  A total Bozo of a baboon, he was my equivalent out there.  He was not pulling off the male-male competition very effectively; he was not pulling off the male-female affiliation stuff very well.  His hair was almost as disheveled and unkempt as mine, and he was the first baboon in the troop who ever interacted with me.  For some bizarre reason he was interested in me, and I utterly bonded with him.  Unfortunately in his prime adult years he spent about a year being a complete jerk, but he fell out of that soon enough.  We even named our six year-old son after him.

Once, in the middle of the open savannah, a troop of about a hundred baboons was foraging over a couple of square miles, where they would come together at the end of the day.  When you're foraging you get really hot, and so you sit under a bush and take a nap for a while.  I was doing a 30 minute observational sample on Benjamin, and during that time he fell asleep.  As I sat there watching what was not one of the more riveting samples I've ever had, the rest of the troop wandered off.

Benjamin eventually woke up, right around the time I was finishing the sample.  I realised I had no idea where the other baboons were and he had no idea either.  He climbed a tree and gave a loud vocalization call.  It's a two-syllable wahoo call, and you can hear it for a mile in any direction, and usually somebody yells back.  But they were too far away to hear his wahoos.  He was up in the top of the tree, and getting anxious, so I climbed on top of my vehicle with my binoculars and finally spotted the baboons three hills over, and moving away really fast.  And we had one of those things - God help my Joe scientist credentials here - but we looked at each other, and I got into the car and started driving and he trotted alongside.

I waited for him, and at one point he crossed a stream and I had to go a half mile up to another point to cross, and he waited for me.  Together we found the baboons.  As far as I could tell nobody gave a shit that he had been away, and they didn't seem particularly pleased to see me either.  But it was like in the Diane Fossey movie, when she touched fingers with Digit for the first time.  I understand how intense it was for her.  This was the nearest I had gotten to a baboon - a baboon is not a gorilla, unfortunately - that first instant when he waited for me to get back from crossing the stream.  The unsentimental interpretation is Benjamin realised I knew where the troop was: this guys's got more information than I do so I'd better stick with him, but I'm going to dump him first chance.  The irresistible more sentimental interpretation was that Benjamin and I had bonded across the species.

Years afterward, when I'd be sitting on a log, observing somebody else, Benjamin was always the most likely baboon in the troop to come over and sit down, not quite next to me, maybe four or five feet away.  Being close enough to hear a baboon's stomach rumbling is an amazing experience, but he was the only one that would do that consistently.


There's a famous passage in which Richard Dawkins responds to the argument that intrinsic to his metaphor of the selfish gene is an imperative: If genes are really selfish, the difference between "is" and "ought" is what life is about.  He defends himself by saying that sometimes our genetic roots will lead us to less than appealing behaviours, but we have to learn to resist these imperatives.  But somewhere in this philosophical critique is the question of where the "we" is in that sentence.  Where's the "we" separate from our genes?  In this case where's the "we" separate from the question of whether you have elevendy neurons in your frontal cortex or two times elevendy neurons, or a set of materialistic nuts and bolts serving as building blocks of the whole system?  Where's the volition?

Where [do] we get the elements of personality that turn into impulsivity control?  It's a couple of levels higher than what I typically do in my lab, which is to try to understand what stress does to a single neuron in a dish, and what that might have to do with depression or anxiety.  At the same time it's a couple of levels below what I do with the baboons, which involves looking at who is successful in the highly competitive, back-stabbing baboon societies and what this has to do with physiology.  You see the link when you observe at them for a week, and realise that success is all about impulsivity control.

On the one hand there's the view of someone like Robert Ardrey that primate social competition is all about, who's got the biggest canines, the most muscle, and the biggest balls.  This view is straight-ahead and deterministic.  Later, a much more politically correct version came along that held that competition is all about social intelligence, forming coalitions, and being nice in your game theory.  But what really happens is that you'll get some baboon that's absolutely physically adept and by Ardrey's logic should be doing just fine.  He also knows how to use social intelligence to form coalitions, and so by Howard Gardner's reckoning he should also be doing fine.  However, at a critical moment he just can't stop himself from doing something stupid, impulsive, and disinhibited.  Amid the physical prowess and the social intelligence, you look at the baboons that are most successful, and not coincidentally pass on more copies of their genes, and they simply have more impulsivity control.

Here’s an example: When baboons hunt together they'd love to get as much meat as possible, but they're not very good at it.  The baboon is a much more successful hunter when he hunts by himself than when he hunts in a group because they screw up every time they're in a group.  Say three of them are running as fast as possible after a gazelle, and they're gaining on it, and they're deadly.  But something goes on in one of their minds - I'm anthropomorphizing here - and he says to himself, "What am I doing here?  I have no idea whatsoever, but I'm running as fast as possible, and this guy is running as fast as possible right behind me, and we had one hell of a fight about three months ago.  I don't quite know why we're running so fast right now, but I'd better just stop and slash him in the face before he gets me."  The baboon suddenly stops and turns around, and they go rolling over each other like Keystone cops and the gazelle is long gone because the baboons just became disinhibited.  They get crazed around each other at every juncture.

A typical male baboon is too impulsive and can't possibly do the disciplined thing.  Baboons are far less disciplined than chimps and when you map their brain anatomy you notice that they don't have a whole lot of frontal cortical function.  Even though there are tremendous individual differences among the baboons, they're still at this neurological disadvantage, compared to the apes, and thus they typically blow it at just the right time.  They could be scheming these incredible coalitions, but at the last moment, one decides to slash his partner in the ass instead of the guy they're going after, just because he can get away with it for three seconds.  The whole world is three seconds long - they're very pointillist in their emotions.

Baboons know what they're doing; they can play chess in their social landscape almost as well as chimps in terms of moving the right pieces around, but at the critical moment they simply can't stop themselves from doing the impulsive thing.  I once watched a Frans de Waal film, Chimpanzee Politics, at a primate conference, and I was sitting next to another baboonologist.  There is a scene where some chimp had just pulled off a brilliant Machiavellian manœuver, and the guy next to me turned and said, "Christ, that is what a baboon would be like if it had a shred of discipline or gratification-postponement."  You're watching a species where most of their social complexity and social misery is built around the fact that at every logical juncture there's a pretty good chance that they're not going to have enough frontal neurons to do the prudent thing, and instead they blow it.  It's amazing to study.

How [do] we develop at the neurobiological level and how we do the difficult thing when it's the right thing to do?  I suspect this project will wind up involving baboons, my children, and neurons growing in dishes, assuming that somehow it will be possible to link those levels.  We have a pretty good sense of reward, punishment, and the neurochemistry of anticipation in the brain by now.  We know how to train a rat or a human to perform a behaviour in exchange for a reward.  We understand exactly what is happening during the interim between having performed a behaviour and knowing that a reward is going to come.  We know that a burst of dopamine has much to do with the anticipation of pleasure and reward.  Building on our understanding of how to make synapses change over time as the result of experience, learning, and memory, it's not hard to imagine how to put those two pieces together to begin to get experience training the system so that the length of time you are willing to wait for the reward gets longer and longer.

Knowing that studying like crazy will give you amazing MCAT scores is one example of gratification postponement.  We understand that the brain's basic structure enables it to do the right thing because it gets a reward, giving it the metaphorical backbone, the robustness, if you will, to do the right thing and to wait for the reward.  If we can understand this there's going to be a great amount of good for the world.  If we can get brains to be better at gratification postponement - because ultimately altruistic behaviour is about reciprocity - it's eventually going to pay off.

The neo-cortex is one of the parts of the brain that ages dramatically, and has something to do with personality disinhibition in old age.  An example of this occurs when suddenly Grandma is pissing off her teenage granddaughter by telling her exactly what she thinks of that new outfit.  In a sense, understanding that problem, either at the level of baboons or humans, is going to be worth the trouble.  It will address questions like: How do we get reinforced?  How do we socially construct gratification postponement, down to the level of neurology?  How does experience make for a frontal cortex that's more robustly able to make you hold your breath?

This neurological science also has political implications and even concerns sociopathic con-men.  It relates to the question of how we understand that there are other organisms out there with different world views and emotions.  It is very intrinsic to empathy.  Sociopathic con-men have spectacular theories of mind.  They're extremely good at exploiting somebody else's knowledge and emotions, as are most cult leaders, and the really good ones have frontal cortices that make them very disciplined.

It is one thing to say, "Do the right thing you get the reward right now."  It is another to say, "Do the right thing and you will get the reward in 60 years," or "Do the right thing and you will get the reward in your afterlife."  The most challenging moral quandaries arise because of circumstances where there is no chance you're going to be rewarded, where, in fact, you will be punished for your stance.  For example, think of civil disobedience.  Are you willing to sacrifice yourself to do the right thing?  There are many realms of martyrdom for what you perceive to be the right thing and for which there is no reward.  What do you do if you have a non-theological framework and you can't content yourself with afterlife?  It can't have anything to do with the frontal cortex.

The minute you're in the realm of Sister Helen Prejean, the nun featured in the movie Dead Man Walking, you have left the primates far behind.  How can someone spend all her time ministering to the most deplorable, scum-of-the-earth people?  Prejean says that what has to be the case is that the less lovable they are the more you have to love them.  The less likelihood of reward, the more you have to be willing to do the right thing and get punished.  This is the realm where Kierkegaard said that Christians need to be able to contain two contradictory facts in their head simultaneously, where the more explicitly faith is challenged, the more irrefutably it is negated, the more there must be faith.  Nothing in primatology or in your dopamine reward pathways can explain that.  This is off the edge of the cliff into a completely different realm.

Incredibly few people live lives where they get no reward.  This behaviour is certainly maladaptive, since by definition you're not going to be passing on copies of your genes, and neither is your kin line.  You can't come up with any sort of adaptive argument that involves doing the incredibly self-sacrificial right thing, and getting punished for it.

The typical male baboon career trajectory is to fight your way to the top while building some good coalitional skills.  When you're relatively high-ranking and if you're going to stay up there, you switch from physical prowess to psychological intimidation and social skills.  But eventually it catches up with you and you finally get into a key fight and get killed or crippled or are utterly defeated and you crash way down.  However, every decade you'll get some guy who's fought his way up, and six months into his ascendancy suddenly decides, "Who needs this?" and voluntarily walks away from it.  They seem to have some sort of epiphanal mid-life crisis and go on to spend the rest of their lives hanging out with infants and forming social attachments with females.

Ten years ago the evolutionary community would have had a derisive response to this, saying that while this may be terrific, it's not a very successful adaptive strategy because this guy is walking away from the competitive world of maximising his reproductive success.  Now, however, genetic studies are beginning to show that these guys out-reproduce the slash-and-burn competitive guys, because they last for years afterward without getting seriously injured and form this female affiliate.  This is what happened to Benjamin, my bozo of a baboon, who during his brief ascendancy became a jerk.  A terribly unlikely civil war had broken out in the troop and it was in the aftermath of every plausible candidate having been done in that he actually managed to stumble into the alpha position and was as incompetent as he could be.

He had no idea what he was doing, he was anxious, and displacing aggression onto every possible innocent bystander.  Then he had an experience that demonstrated exactly the cognitive limits in a baboon.  They’re smart, but they’re not chimps.  Benjamin was leading a procession as they were coming back at the end of the day along a path and through some bushes.  He’s leading the way, proud as hell of himself.  But the fact is alpha male baboons do not lead processions because they just joined the troop a couple of years ago and they have no idea where anybody’s processing - the 20-year-old matriarchs do.

But Benjamin just happened to be in front of the troop, heading toward the forest, marching along, never looking back.  Unbeknownst to him, the matriarch, who’s two steps behind him, veers off into the bushes to the right, and 80 baboons follow her while he continues walking going straight forward.  Eventually Benjamin stops, looks back and freaks out.  His hair stands up, and he starts his wahoo calling, which is how he spent a large part of his adult life: "Where is everybody?!"  And he then has a moment where you know exactly what he’s thinking.  He walks over to my Jeep and looks underneath, like - are 60 baboons hiding under there waiting to surprise him?  But no baboons.  He sits down by the Jeep, looking really demoralised and vaguely humiliated.  This is what he’s alpha for?  Eventually he hears baboons burping nearby in the bushes and starts looking for them again - they’re underneath the car!  Once again he goes over to the jeep and bends over in this ridiculous position, his head between his legs, looking for his fellow baboons.  It was a fabulous moment.

For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man - if I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is important - balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm of humans.  What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff.  Go for an alternative strategy.  Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor.  Amazingly enough that's not what pays off in that system.  Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap.  I could not have said that when I was 25.

According to an unexpected finding called female choice it turns out that females have a hell of a lot of control over who they're mating with, and, irrationally enough, they like to mate with guys that are nice to them!  A handful of these guys simply walked away from it over the years.  Nathaniel was one, and Joshua was another.  They had the lowest stress hormone levels you've ever seen in male baboons, and outlived their cohorts.  The fact that this alternative strategy is actually the more adaptive one is one of the good bits of news to come out of primatology in quite some time.  If that's the future of primates, this planet is going to be in great shape in a couple of million years.


Chimps intrinsically have a different version of being aggressive because whereas male baboons change troops at puberty - meaning that all the adult males in a troop are unrelated - male chimps spend their whole lives in the same group.  It’s the females who change troops.  A group containing big adult males who've known each other their whole lives, being related to some degree, is a prescription for dangerous males, and the building block of organised warfare.  And that's exactly what chimps do; they patrol their orders.  It's a very similar demographic pattern to what is seen in patrilocal nomadic pastoralist cultures, the folks who invented warrior classes.

These pastoralist societies try to increase the sense of relatedness amongst the warriors, melding them together, creating a pseudo-kinship among young men who feel like they've known each other long enough to be willing to put their necks on the line for each other.  That is one hell of a prescription for trouble for the neighbours.  You sure decrease the homicide rate within the group but you've virtually invented genocide, and chimps were the first ones to get this one going.  It's a scary combination.

Source: www.edge.org (visit their site for the complete interview) John Brockman, Editor and Publisher Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher contact: editor@edge.org © Edge Foundation, Inc all rights reserved

It seems to me that women (maybe other primates as well) want to mate with the successful males when they're younger and the nicer ones later.  But maybe that what they want because that's what they're more likely to get.  I fail to see anything magical in faith.  The people who love the unlovable often do so because there's no one lovable around who is interested.

Scientists Say Rare Brazilian Monkey "Talks" Like Humans

Scientists say a rare Brazilian monkey has speech patterns that are similar to that of human beings.  The muriqui, or woolly spider monkey, uses at least 534 different phonetic phrases to communicate.  They talk most often after they wake up in the morning and before they go to sleep at night.

Scientist Eleonora Cavalcante Alvano said they have recorded 140 hours of the monkeys talking.  "There is no simian in the world with a language so close to humans," he told the Pesquisa science magazine.

Scientists from Campinas University in Sao Paulo say the species is also unusual because of the way they live.  Muriquis live in groups that are led by the best-loved - rather than the strongest - monkey.  There appears to be no competition among males.  They are among the world's rarest animals with fewer than 1,000 (some estimate fewer than 400) left in the wild.  They live in the jungle northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

Source: www.ananova.com Wednesday 12 March 2003

Teaching Sign Language to Gorillas

It's a little like wrestling a gorilla.  You don't quit when you're tired - you quit when the gorilla is tired.

- Robert Strauss

A Live Chat With Koko the Gorilla

Koko the Gorilla, famous for her ability to communicate with humans, joined a live, interactive chat on ABCNEWS.com on Friday, 22 December 2000, following her appearance on Good Morning America.  Koko has a "vocabulary" of over 1000 signs and understands approximately 2000 words in English.

Dr Francine "Penny" Patterson of The Gorilla Foundation presented questions to Koko and relayed her signed responses during the chat.  The Gorilla Foundation, established as a non-profit in 1976, is dedicated to bringing inter-species communications to the public and to the preservation and propagation of gorillas and other endangered primates.  The transcript appears below.

Moderator at 11:59am ET: ABCNEWS.com welcomes Koko the Gorilla and her caregiver, Dr Francine "Penny" Patterson, to our live chat.  Thank you both for joining us!

Penny: Thank you for giving us this opportunity!

Moderator: Koko is in the middle of breakfast.  Dr Patterson, what is she eating and is she enjoying her morning meal?

Penny: She's eating cereal, fruit, juice and a little salad.  We're helping Koko slim down by adding vegetables to her diet in the morning.

Moderator: We have hundreds of questions for Koko from our online audience.  Dr Patterson will relay Koko's signed responses to your questions.  Let's start with this one from Kevin Connelly: "What do you want for Christmas?"

Koko: Candy.  Medicine candy.  Apple.

Penny: She calls vitamin C medicine candy.  She just purred, so she's happy.  A purr for a gorilla is happiness, just like a cat.

Moderator: Rick Richardson asks: "Are you happy?"

Koko: I'm fine.  May I talk on the phone?

Penny: (Koko is given phone to listen to.)  She listened and gave a soft vocalisation which you probably couldn't hear.  That's how she says "hello" and identifies herself.  Koko is purring again; she's happy this morning.  She says she's "fine", and purrs more.

Moderator: David asks: "How do you feel about living with humans?"

Koko: People fine.  I'm thirsty!

Penny: She's reaching for my pockets.

Moderator: Beau Buzzelli asks: "Do you feel different from other gorillas?"

Penny: She's been asked whether she's an animal or person, but she's answered in the grey area; she's answered as "person", and she's answered under "gorilla" as well.  When I asked her the question if she felt different from other gorillas, she signed "person".  I made the sign for "gorilla", and she made the sign for "person".

Moderator: Mary Ellen Meyer asks: "Do you still have a kitty?"

Penny: She has her kitty Smokey of 15 years, and she has Moemoe as well.

Koko: Another.

Penny: We don't know if "another" means another question, or another kitty.

Moderator: Randi asks: "Would you ever want a puppy?"

Koko: Candy.

Penny: She'd rather have candy.  Once we did present her with a puppy, and she took it and then graciously handed it right back.

Moderator: Mandy Murrell asks: "What is your favorite toy?  Why?"

Koko: Tiger.

Penny: Tiger is an open-hand version of cat, so she signed tiger.  She has a set of stuffed white tigers that I got her not long ago.  A whole family.

Moderator: Koko, many in our audience ask: Do you have a boyfriend?

Penny: Ndume is her boyfriend.  This is her way of talking on the phone.  She makes an unvoiced vocalisation.  I think she answered you.  Grunting means "yes".

Moderator: jwildman asks: "Do you still want to have a baby?"

Koko: Baby, give me.  Great.

Penny: I guess that means yes.  We need to help her, though.

Koko: Come (to Ron, another trainer)

Penny: She's purring at Ron.

Arline from moline.@home.com: Koko, do you enjoy painting?

Koko's picture "Pink" and two by Koko's gorilla friend Michael, "Me, Myself, Good" and "Stink" Source: www.koko.org

Koko: Gorilla candy.  Nut.

Penny: She's purring again.  Once we asked her what gorillas like to do best, and she said "Gorilla like eat good."  Purring is an assent vocalisation, and also a "no" vocalisation that they use naturally.  She was asking me for food.  She's asking again.

Andrea from tnt5.louisville.ky.da.uu.net: Dr Patterson, will you be accompanying Koko to Maui?  I would hate to think after spending all these years with Koko you aren't?

Penny: Yes, and I'd like to explain the reason why Maui is important.  I don't know if everyone is aware that we are on the verge of losing gorillas and other great apes.  What we do now will decide their fate, whether we have gorillas and other great apes in our future, or whether we lose them forever.

Moderator: Jeffrey Smith III asks, "Has Koko seen her own Web site, Koko.org?  Does she understand the Internet?"

Penny: Koko has actually commented on the pictures that she sees posted there of herself.  She looked at herself as a baby.  I don't know how much she understands about the breadth and the depth of it, that it reaches many many people, but she's definitely appreciative of the content.  She likes the content of Koko.org.  She's very much enjoyed visiting the site.

Moderator: Pat asks: "Koko, how can we help save the gorillas?"

Koko: Have gorilla polite.  Hungry, thirsty.  Have hungry gorilla sorry.

Penny: I think she's equating gorilla's troubles to being starved, but I'm not sure about that, nor have we necessarily told her all the details of the problems in Africa.  Trouble in her mind means "send food".  The crisis does involve food, and we need to find a solution so that the people in Africa use other food sources than gorillas.  The gorilla's troubles are not related to famine.  "Bush meat" (meat from gorillas and apes intended for human consumption) is an illegal commerce that is not necessary.  This is simply an enforcement issue and a values issue, and a legal issue.

Koko: (Koko has decided to rearrange the furniture...)

Penny: She's getting into her book drawer, there's a book about great apes that she's looking at now, and she's got her little phone card.

Erica: Do you like cookies and chocolate?

Koko: Cookie nice.  Yes.  Cookie (better.

Penny: When I asked her which she liked "better" she signed simultaneously "cookie nice".  I think it's good to explain that she's creative with her language, and compound signs and making new words in ways humans do with sign language is a skill that gorillas share with us.  Of course, they are our close relatives, so it's not surprising.

Lehua Gray from chapel1.com: Did you see when you were on TV today?

Penny: We weren't up early enough to see Koko on television, but she has watched herself on television, and commented about herself, and what she's doing.

Ms. Paley's Second Graders from k12.ny.us: What is Koko's favourite colour?

Koko: Lipstick.  Lip frown.

Penny: She's reading the document we got from you.  She's pointing to the word "Penny" on the page.  She's not answering the question about colour.  She's pointing to her hair, which is black.  She signs "hair".  But we know that her favorite color is red, by the way, for the record.

Tbone: Koko, do you enjoy watching movies?

Koko: Fine movie.  Continue, continue.  Long movies.  All.

Penny: She has quite a stack of movies in here.  She gets "browse" while she watches the movies.  Browse is greens, spinach, other vegetables.  She gets that for snack during movies rather than popcorn.

Janice from dynamic.ziplink.net: How did the video dating work out for Koko?

Penny: She was very much thumbs up/thumbs down for gorillas we saw on video.  Her first choice, a gorilla in Rome, was not able to be her friend, not able to come, but she got her second choice, and her second choice was Ndume, her current male companion.

Pippa and Audrey from dialin.iupui.edu: Does Koko like to get letters in the mail?

Penny: We were opening Christmas cards yesterday, and she was very much enjoying helping me open the mail.  She's reading through her diary.  She actually does write letters.  She has written a very credible signature of her name, "Koko", and she's recently been writing "N" for Ndume, and "M" as in Michael (another gorilla at the facility).  She of course has books in her environment, and much printed matter, so she does copy those symbols.

Moderator: What is she writing now?

Koko: Finished.  Gorilla.  That people.

Penny: She wrote on the page with your phone number on it about this event, and she said "That people".  When she pointed to her drawing, she said "that gorilla."  She's just pulled out Out of Africa, and we're going to put it on.  She got it out of its case, and she handed it to me, and it's in there now.

Moderator: Terry asks: "Do you have dreams when you sleep?"

Koko: Me.  Yes.  Dream candy.

Moderator: Evelyn asks: "Does she want to wear clothes or hats or shoes at all?"

Penny: She will put them on, hats, clothes, shoes, and sometimes she'll wear them around for some time, but generally, if she gets a baby doll for example, the clothes have to come off.  She doesn't want clothes on the babies that she carries around, and she doesn't generally wear anything on herself for very long.

Deborah from proxy.aol.com: Does Koko like the movie Planet of the Apes?

Penny: We're very careful about the movies we show her.  Violence upsets her.  We stick to the ones that are PG.  She only really watches movies that are very, you know, that don't have violence, because it upsets her.  Even slapstick violence can upset her, people stumbling and getting hurt over and over again; she gets upset watching that.

Chantel from tnt20.chi5.da.uu.net: Dr Patterson, Have you ever been afraid of Koko?

Penny: I respect Koko, because she weighs a whole lot more than I do!  But we're good friends, and as long as we respect each other's moods, we get along just fine.

Kent Ibsen from ti.com: Koko, is it hard to learn to sign?

Koko: Nice have.

Penny: That's not a negative response.  Maybe signs are nice to have.  She didn't indicate that they were difficult.

Alyssa Paul from cvip.net: Do you like to look at books?

Penny: She's looking at her favorite book right now, and that's Mother Goose.  She's very much into Mother Goose.  She's pointing to a story called "A Difficult Rhyme".  She's watching Out of Africa and reading Mother Goose.  She's multitasking!

brenda parker, U of Arizona from hrp.arizona.edu: How does Koko show that she is upset??

Penny: Koko shows that she's upset in a number of ways that gorillas do.  She has an "annoyance" bark, that sounds like "Unh-unh", but it's sharper, and she also can show she's upset by doing displays, charging around and kind of backhanding things.  It's a very typical gorilla display pattern.

Cindy McCanse: I saw Penny's Christmas presents to you this morning.  Do you have a Christmas present for Penny?

Penny: She's looking at the film.  I think her present for me is her!  People's presents for Koko would be helping Koko save her species by becoming a member of Koko.org.

Sharon Walsh from sorvall.com: Koko, do you love Penny?

Penny: She's still watching the movie.  She's ignoring me.  She's very much into Robert Redford right now.

Moderator: Dr Patterson, any final thoughts for our audience?

Penny: Yes, I think that the reason that Koko is able to participate in chats like this is because of her immense intelligence, and that's true of all gorillas.  Our goal is to make sure that we don't lose gorillas in the next 5 to 15 years, which is what is predicted.  So Koko needs your help to make sure that gorillas stay a part of our world.  You can do this by visiting Koko.org and becoming members, and it's not even too late to give gift e-memberships, so we can send goodies to people who give the membership.  She's turned off the movie.  She's grooming my eyebrow, and sending me toward the refrigerator.

Moderator: Koko, any final words for our audience?

Koko: (Koko grunts) Lips, thirsty.

Penny: She's just thinking about having a snack, so we'll sign off.  And Ndume's impatient to have her come and join him.

Moderator: Thanks guys!  And thanks to our audience for participating in this live, inter-species chat.  Enjoy the holiday!

Also see:

bulletwww.koko.org - WOULD we treat animals in the same way if we could communicate with them freely?  While such a future is unimaginable, there is a programme instituted by The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org which involves teaching sign language to two lowland gorillas, Koko and Michael.  The Gorilla Language Project, Project Koko, is the longest continuous inter-species communication project of its kind in the world.

I've reproduced this "conversation" with Koko because there's something about it that bothers me.  Koko sounds like she's nice enough - for a gorilla totally removed from her natural habitat.  She sounds like a slightly-retarded or slightly-senile adult - someone you would humour but who had a short attention span - not exactly a stimulating conversationalist - and could be dangerous if she loses her temper.  I think Cheetah the Chimp (the last article on the previous page) sounds a lot more interesting.

I wonder if Dr Patterson has a family of her own.  If so, were her own children raised around Koko or did she exert care to keep her life compartmentalised?  If she had no children of her own, did she come to view Koko as her child in any way?  (For insight on someone who faced this problem, see Cruelty on the Couch about Dr Stephanie LaFarge and her chimp, Nim Chimsky; for more on the remarkable Nim Chimpsky - including details of his recent, unexpected death - see A Broken Heart.)

In any case, just as I wouldn't want to see invasive experimentation on the retarded or the elderly, neither do I like to have it happen to primates.


Dear Cecil:

What is the bottom line with Koko the gorilla's ability to learn sign language?  I know she only communicates through her handler, who seems to engage in a great deal of subjective translation.  I saw an excerpt in Harper's Magazine of a supposed Internet chat with Koko a few years ago that made me rather dubious that the gorilla was capable of any use of language.  Nonetheless, there is a strong perception out there that Koko has learned to sign.  What is the straight dope?

Fabian Braithwaite

Cecil replies:

Don't be too hard on Koko, Fabian.  If you judged strictly from Internet chat, you'd have to question the linguistic abilities of many humans.  (D00dz!)  Scientists have debated for years whether gorillas really understand language or are just, you know, aping us.  The consensus among animal researchers seems to be that they understand at some level, but are less adept at using language themselves.  When I read transcripts of Koko's alleged conversations I often think: Jeez, a trained monkey could do better.

A couple obvious problems present themselves when one looks into this talking-ape business.  The first, as you suggest, is that interpretation of the gorilla's conversation, if such it be, is left to the handler, who generally sees any improbable concatenation of signs as deeply meaningful.  During the 1998 on-line chat you saw bits of in Harper's (the whole thing is at www.koko.org), for example, Koko, without being prompted or questioned, made the sign for nipple, which Francine Patterson, her trainer, interpreted as a rhyme for "people."  (Patterson further claimed that this was a reference to the chat session's audience.)  Even if you buy the idea that gorillas, who cannot speak, grasp the concept of rhyme, this sounds like wishful thinking.  Similar examples abound: "lips" is supposedly Koko's word for woman, "foot" her word for man.  Koko made a lot of signs, and sometimes expressed desires or other thoughts, but nothing in the transcript suggests a sustained conversation, even of the simple sort you might have with a toddler.

That brings us to the second problem.  What constitutes language use?  In 1979 Herbert Terrace of Columbia University published a skeptical account of his efforts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (see A Broken Heart).  Nim accomplished the elementary linguistic task of connecting a sign to a meaning, and could be taught to string signs together to express simple thoughts such as "give orange me give eat."  But in Terrace's view Nim could not form new ideas by linking signs in ways he hadn't been taught - he didn't grasp syntax, in other words, arguably the essence of language.  (A dog, after all, may understand that bringing his leash to his owner is a sign that he wants to go out, but nobody sees that as evidence of language use.)

Terrace's work was a major blow to talking-ape proponents.  But their case started looking stronger in 1990, when researcher Emily Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of Georgia State University presented evidence of language development in a bonobo chimp named Kanzi.  One of the more telling complaints made about gorillas like Koko who communicated via sign language was that they often babbled, producing long, apparently meaningless strings of signs.  Their handlers would then pluck a few lucky hits from the noise and declare that communication had occurred.  Savage-Rumbaugh got around this problem by teaching Kanzi to point to printed symbols on a keyboard, a less ambiguous approach.  She claimed that the ape demonstrated a rough grasp of grammar using this system.  What's more, when presented with 653 sentences making requests using novel word combinations, Kanzi responded correctly 72% of the time - supposedly comparable to what a human child can do at 2½ years old.

Today, from what I can tell, scientific opinion is divided along disciplinary lines.  Many researchers who work primarily with animals accept or at least are receptive to the idea that apes can be taught a rudimentary form of language.  Linguists, on the other hand, dismiss the whole thing as nonsense.  Personally I'm happy to concede that the boundary between animal and human communication isn't as sharply drawn as we once thought.  Animals (not just primates - check out Alex the talking African gray parrot) can use language in limited ways.  They can respond to simple questions on a narrow range of subjects; they can express basic thoughts and desires.  I'll even buy the possibility that some are capable of employing elementary syntax.  However, all this strikes me as the equivalent of teaching a computer to beat people at chess - a neat trick, but not one that challenges fundamental notions about human vs nonhuman abilities.  I've seen nothing to persuade me that animals can use language as we do, that is, as a primary tool with which to acquire and transmit knowledge.  I won't say such a thing is impossible.  But in light of the muddled state of the debate so far, the first task is to decide what would constitute a fair test.

Cecil Adams

Source: straightdope.com

According to a Seattle Times report, the Great Ape Legal Project, headed by a Seattle lawyer, is moving toward a goal of demonstrating, within the next decade, that chimpanzees should have some of the same legal rights as humans (beyond being mere property, according to the Times, "to becoming people with rights to life and liberty and perhaps even the pursuit of happiness").  Though it would be possible for a chimp to sue his guardian, a reassuring spokesperson said animals such as cockroaches and ants "will never be eligible for any kind of rights."

Source: Funny Times October 2000

New Zealand Lobby Wants Human Rights for Apes

by Rodney Joyce

Wellington - Great apes may soon have some of the rights previously reserved only for humans, if a group of New Zealand scientists and activists succeed.  They have asked the New Zealand parliament to grant the right to life to man's closest relations - chimpanzees, bonobos (a species of African pygmy ape), gorillas and orang-utans.  The Great Ape Project of New Zealand argues that the apes are genetically very close to humans and part of the same animal family.

"There's now a mountain of evidence that the great apes are as intelligent as young human children, and very similar in their emotional and cognitive development,"' theoretical biologist David Penny, from Massey University, said in a statement on Friday.  "They have self-awareness and theory-of-mind: hallmark traits that were once thought to separate humanity from all other species."

The Great Ape Project is seeking to win primates in New Zealand similar rights and protection as the country's Bill of Rights extends to humans.  The new bill would outlaw killing "captive hominids," and protect them from invasive experimentation or torture, as part of a review of New Zealand's animal welfare law.  The group believes New Zealand would be the first country to grant such rights, saying the change might be approved because New Zealand has only around three dozen great apes - in one circus and three zoos.

New Zealand has no strong scientific lobby using apes for experiments, president Liz Watson said.  She hoped a law change in New Zealand would have repercussions in Europe and the United States, where it said thousands of great apes were held in research laboratories, private collections, circuses and zoos.  "Several countries have active campaigns for hominid rights but there is resistance from vested interests such as research labs," said Watson.

The group said a submission in support of its proposal had been lodged by an expert on chimpanzee behaviour, Dr Roger Fouts of the Chimpanzee Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University.  Fouts campaigns for primate rights and co-founded, with fellow scientist Jane Goodall, a sanctuary for chimpanzees retired from the US Air Force.  Last year he wrote a book, Next of Kin, about a chimpanzee called Booee to which he taught American Sign Language, but lost contact with after the ape was used for biomedical research and contracted Hepatitis C.  When the pair were reunited in front of television cameras 13 years later, Booee still recognised Fouts and started a sign-language conversation.  Following the screening of the encounter on US television, unsolicited public donations enabled Booee and eight other chimps to be purchased and retired to a sanctuary.

Another chimpanzee taught sign language by Fouts passed its knowledge on to young chimpanzees, while another is said to enjoy drinking Chablis and watching television.

Source: Reuters Friday 30 October 1999

Unfortunately, Parliament did not agree...  However, see Great Ape Project NZ to see what progress has been made.

Dear Editor:

In an accurate review of Jonathan Marks' loosely-argued What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, Michaela di Leonardo passes on to your readers the misleading impression that the Great Ape Project uses the genetic similarities between humans and apes to argue for "human rights" for apes, "frequently to the detriment of the impoverished African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands."

This is false from start to finish.  First, the Great Ape Project is not based on the genetic similarities of humans and great apes, but on the rich emotional and mental lives of the great apes, so well documented by supporters of the Great Ape Project like Jane Goodall and many others.  Second, the Great Ape Project does not seek the full range of human rights for great apes, but only the basic rights to life, liberty, and protection from torture, and even the rights to life and liberty that we seek are not absolute, for they allow euthanasia in the interests of the apes, and captivity where that is in the best interests of the apes or else is required for the safety of others.  Finally, the protection of the remaining, and rapidly dwindling, forests of Africa and Southeast Asia where the great apes live in their natural habitat is, surely, also in the best longterm interests of the human residents of those regions.

Readers interested in finding out more about the project for themselves may go to www.greatapeproject.org.

Peter Singer
DeCamp Professor of Bioethics
University Center for Human Values
Princeton University

Peter Singer is co-founder and President of the Great Ape Project - International.

Source: The Nation 16 - 23 September 2002

For more on animals, including reptiles, crustaceans, arachnids, insects, fish, birds, pets, livestock, rodents, bears, primates, whales and Wellington's waterfront, click "Up" below to take you to the Table of Contents for this Animals section.

Back Home Up Next