Why was Koko so intelligent

Gorilla Lady Koko: could she sign language?

Exclusively for zoos.media - 23.06.2018. Author: Philipp J. Kroiß

After the death of the female gorilla Koko, this article deals with her life and takes a look at the very dubious research on the female gorilla.

Gorilla Lady Koko: could she sign language?

It felt like the whole world was in mourning when the gorilla lady Koko died and the mystification of the animal began immediately. She was assumed to have mastered sign language or even to have been highly intelligent. Well, with some distance to the undoubtedly sad event, the truth must also replace the myth. This whole thing about the lovable gorilla lady is the result of highly dubious science.

Koko & Patterson

Francine Patterson is the driving force behind the mystification, which she pursued with determination even during her lifetime. Koko was mismatched by her right from the start. In 1971, when Koko was born, Patterson first met Koko and began teaching her sign language, as she herself said. Even then, humanization began and continued. In 1974, instead of growing up with gorillas, Koko was brought to Stanford.

When Patterson was asked to return the animal to the zoo, she refused. Fearing a trial and a public relations disaster, the zoo agreed that Patterson could adopt Koko. The misprinted gorilla changed hands for $ 12,500 and would continue to have no chance of a species-appropriate life because it was now in the hands of a questionable scientist who believed the gorilla to be a kind of person with fur and accordingly sold it to the public.

Now the commercial marketing of her idea, which made the gorilla lady world famous, began. Everyone was impressed by the oh-so-human-like Koko and how practical that there was a foundation in which the enthusiasm for the animal for Patterson and her collaborators could be converted into cash.

Language usage never proven

Patterson built her existence on a myth, and that myth needed to be nurtured and preserved. She presented herself as a scientist and her “research” as “the longest running interspecies communication”. Criticism from the scientific community was abundant and culminated, among other things, in the publication “Why Koko Can’t Talk” when the gorilla was 11 years old. The publication led to a tangible dispute that is now almost forgotten.

Patterson, on the other hand, brought out Pseudo Science himself. It was pseudo-science because it never brought out real data, but heartwarming films. Without data, it was never possible to understand or verify their "science" in any way. One could suspect calculus behind this or even interpret an admission of the lie into it.

One thing is certain: Patterson was never able to prove in any way by data and facts that Koko understood or actually could use sign language. Patterson completely wasted Koko's life and apart from a few scientifically worthless videos, nothing will remain.

Sleight of hand for a myth

You can teach animals an incredible amount through training and also very easily give the impression that the animal in question understands language. This is incredibly easy for a trained trainer and even laypeople can, for example, react a dog to auditory signals such as "Sit!" work out. The fact that animals react does not mean that they really understand what is being said.

Here you can see in a video how she allegedly learns a new character:

We actually have positive reinforcement here, almost like something out of a textbook. She starts the session with the sign for grass and Koko reacts with a sign for flowers, but only points to one place on the cloth, which, interestingly, is exactly one place that she will later learn that the image is one Butterfly acts. Flowers are much further down on the right edge or at the same level on the left edge.

A subsequent scratching of the nose is translated as “fake”. The ASL symbol for fake is completely different; Koko moves her hand to the right (as seen from her) after touching the nose, but would have to move it to the left (as seen from her). So Koko has already twice provided evidence that she does not understand or master anything that is supposed to be her.

The learning of the new sign then consists of pure imitation, which is first corrected by the trainer and then positively reinforced in a secondary manner. We don't see any sign in this video that Koko really understands what she is saying, but the application and perception as “learning” is completely based on the interpretation of the trainer, and you can hardly call her otherwise in this situation, in the animal . Looked at soberly, Koko failed twice and imitated once, which was then positively reinforced.

Who is training whom here?

But there are also videos in which Koko is primarily encouraged. There is a treat for a little strumming on a piano:

It is interesting that she really demands the treat, because here she uses the gesture for food, which is the easiest to train. But that doesn't mean that she understood them either. She has only had the experience in the training situation that she receives food with this gesture and repeats this if necessary - this can be trained with any animal that is physically capable of such a gesture. When the food doesn't come, she downright refuses to jingle any more on the piano.

This is a classic mistake that many lay trainers make: They don't train the animal, but the animal trains people and that is the danger when you train a gesture for food, because how do you react then? The animal has to be positively encouraged to use the gesture correctly and so you get into a vicious circle in which the trainer becomes a living automatic feeder for the animal.

Ultimately, this scene strongly suggests that Koko was more likely to teach her trainer to provide her with rewards. The animal has finally registered that certain gestures bring you positive reinforcement at a certain time - just like the dog who says "Sit!" responds. That does not speak for a real understanding of the signs or signs.

The question of ethics

The Koko videos all have one thing in common: there is no such thing as failure. It's a bit like those trick-shot videos where impossible shots with a ball always seem to work right away. You can only find out that there were 49 other takes in which it didn't work out if you ask. Since we do not have any data, only these videos, which never really document failure, but you know from training with gorillas and other animals that everything does not work right away, everything is incredibly unbelievable.

There is not the slightest evidence that Koko ever used or mastered sign language. From what you can see in the videos, it was a trained animal. Patterson made sure that there was no scientific data and she is more likely to be described as a training wildlife filmmaker than a researcher. The question now is how ethical it is to do such a thing.

Using animals for experiments they volunteer is perfectly legitimate, and Koko may have enjoyed the training sessions, but she had no choice. When doing research in zoos and aquariums, the great apes you work with have another life. The researcher makes an offer and if the animals don't feel like doing it, they don't join in and come back to their conspecifics and live in a natural group. Koko was completely miscarried from the start and had no other life in a natural group with conspecifics, but was only a domestic animal.

Against this background, it is also questionable whether, even if we had data from her, it would be usable at all due to this obvious mistake. In modern zoos and aquariums, care is taken to ensure that the animals, even when raised by hand, are allowed to lead a species-appropriate life: in a family group, on a natural facility with appropriate social contacts. The days when great apes were humanized are thankfully long gone in zoos.

What remains?

So what is Coco's “legacy”? Films that are undoubtedly touching, but also document failure. Scientifically completely worthless, they show a trained monkey reproducing the trick it has learned. Undoubtedly, one must critically question the role of the zoo in San Francisco and investigate why it allowed this in the first place. But you also have to take into account that at that time you didn't know what you know today and hardly anyone thought it possible how the researcher would use the animal.

Another guilt remains for Patterson, who did not work properly to collect data that was usable, but apparently preferred to forfeit her dream of having a gorilla as a pet. As a result, it has made impossible any scientific value that the development of the animal could have under certain circumstances for scientific research, even though we urgently need meaningful and usable research with gorillas in order to be able to optimally protect the animals.

It remains to be hoped that Koko was nevertheless able to lead a life that somehow pleased her. Training gorillas isn't bad per se - we know from zoos that many gorillas like training. However, it is questionable how these findings from zoo animal husbandry can be transferred to this completely different attitude at Patterson. This question will probably remain open because no data on Koko were made available on this either.