Koko the Gorilla Case Study July 26, 2012 Environmental Ethics
I chose to discuss the characteristics of communication, Productivity, Conventionality and
Displacement. Do you think Koko is thinking, is she conscious?
Should we challenge the claim that animals cannot communicate similar to humans?
Kant said humans are superior to animals. His reasoning for this was humans can feel pleasure and
pain. He believes animals cannot feel such things. Descartes believes animals and humans are different
because animals cannot communicate as well as humans. Descartes said “All animals are machines”.
Koko is a female gorilla, born on July 4, 1971. She learned to understand over 1000 signs based
on American Sign Language. She also understood approximately 2000 words of spoken English.
Three characteristics thought to be unique to humans and examples of each, challenging these
claims are below.
Productivity is the ability to create new words and phrases. Koko described hide and seek as
“quiet chase”. She also calls a ring a “finger bracelet. She calls a brush a “scratch comb” a mask an
“eye hat”. She learned many other words and phrases. When asking her where a baby drinks, she
points to her mouth. She blows kisses and pretends to sneeze. Koko signs baby, she wants a baby.
Penny actually discusses this with Koko. Koko remembers Meg being pregnant and knows later she
has had her baby. She treats her kittens like babies, she is very gentle with them. All these things
conflict with Descartes belief that animals cannot communicate as well as humans.
Conventionality is the ability to assign a name to something. Koko was given a kitten she
named him All Ball. Her kitten was a manx which is a cat that doesn’t have a tail. Her kitten looked like
a fur ball. She named her grey kitten Smokey because she was grey like smoke. Koko came up with her
own sign for lettuce or greens. She signed “browse” she didn’t know how to sign what she wanted
because she had not learned a sign for it. She came up with her own sign. She will point to her wrist
when she is hungry, “time”, “food”.
Displacement is the ability to communicate thoughts about abstract things. Things that are not
present, things happening in the past, or have happened in the past. Koko had a gorilla friend named
Michael. Michael watched his mother die. He signed crying, sharp noise and cut neck describing his
mothers throat being slit killing his mother. This happened when Michael was in the wilderness as a
baby. He was able to describe this years later. When All Ball died, Patterson signed to Koko that All
Ball was gone. She signed “bad, sad, bad” and “frown, cry, frown, sad”. She also was looking forward
to a baby gorilla coming, when the gorilla arrived it wasn’t a baby. Michael was three. Koko was upset
because she looked forward to a baby gorilla. She signed that Michael was old. She did learn to love
Michael just as we would our siblings. Koko was also able to express her feelings when looking for
a mate. If she liked a gorilla she would say yes or kiss the television screen.
Descartes believes only human beings are capable of speech that expresses thoughts. He said
animals make sounds that some people believe is speech. He believes this is just a mechanically
induced behavior. Descartes said only humans can express thoughts. He said only humans are
conscious, have minds and souls and are able to learn a language. Thus he believes only humans
deserve compassion. He believes animals are like robots and cannot reason or feel pain. Descartes
said “animal and human bodies contain bones, nerves, muscles, blood, animal spirits and other organs
which can produce themselves without aid of thought”. He does admit that animals can convey anger,
fear and hunger. He then says animals “have not indicated by voice or other signs anything referring to
thought alone, rather than to movement of mere nature”. By watching videos about Koko the gorilla
this is actually not true. Koko will point to her eyes when asked where are her eyes. If this is just
mechanically induced than we would have to say the same about children.
When our children are learning to talk we point to things and tell them what it is. People who are
unable to speak and use sign language are doing the same as Koko. So wouldn’t we believe that
actually Koko is thinking just like a human. Koko asks for food, she will say she is hungry or thirsty.
These things show that animals are similar to humans. Koko is sad when her kitten dies, this shows
pain. She also wants a mate so she can have a baby, isn’t that reasoning? I believe these things that
Koko does discredits what Descartes says about humans being the only ones that can express thought.
Koko and Michael would paint and in these paintings they would express their feelings.
These things also show that animals are “thinking” and they are “conscious”. When Koko was waiting
to be fed she started eating some paper. She didn’t think anyone was around once she realized she had
been caught on camera she spit the paper out.
Another thing I found interesting in the video about Koko was the similar qualities of humans.
It was brought up that we have the same blood types as gorillas. We also have the same amount of hairs
per square inch as gorillas do.
This video brought a lot of light onto the thoughts of animals. We were shown that Koko has
feelings similar to us. She can show love, caring, fear, sadness and can communicate as well with us.
She had a hard time signing some things because of her hands. She came up with ways to share things
with Penny even when she wasn’t sure of a word or a phrase. Koko was very conscious of surroundings
and of others feelings. She thought about who she wanted for a mate and expressed that. She shared
her feelings about wanting a baby.
Should Koko be granted access into the moral circle? I believe she should be granted access. I
don’t feel this way because she can use sign language. I would allow all animals into the moral circle.
Obviously animals can’t vote or pay taxes but that doesn’t mean they should be treated any
different from humans. We can still treat them with respect and care for them. Animals in the wild hunt
for food, but isn’t that what we do? If we didn’t have food on the shelves at the local grocery store we
would hunt for it. Many humans buy a license and hunt for meat.
Many people that have pets teach them how to sit, beg, roll over, etc. We tell our pet its time to
go outside and they run to the door. Dogs bring you their bowl when its empty. When you go to Sea
World you see animals waving and begging for food. I believe this shows all animals are thinking and
conscious and belong in our moral circle. If we were raised in the wild I am sure we would act different
than we do in society. Its the same with animals, when in our homes they are calmer, out in the
wilderness they are wild.
I have to disagree with Kant and Descartes theories and philosophies. Animals are not just
machines, if they are we are. We are taught as children how to speak, walk, show love and respect each
other. All animals can be taught to speak, in their own language. A dog barks when it wants something,
a cat meows. Animals will rub their bodies against us to get attention. Our children do the same, they
cry for our attention or grab onto our leg. When our pets are hurt they let us know, so this shows they
can express feelings. Koko would tell Penny she loved her. She showed her kittens love by her gentle
ways, holding and hugging them. Koko had seen a DVD that was sent to Penny, it was about wild
gorillas, it had a “bushmeat scene”. This obviously had upset her. The next day she seen a grocery
ad and she picked up the meat section and showed Penny. She signed “shame there”.
Should we challenge the claim that animals cannot communicate similar to humans. Yes we
definitely can challenge it and prove that they can. Humans are not superior to animals. Animals can
feel pleasure and pain. Koko has proved these things by her communication with Penny and others.
Koko has also proved things by her response and actions to other animals and people.
The following are the websites that I used for my conclusions.
Documentary: A conversation with Koko