12 votes

Why Koko the gorilla couldn't talk

8 comments

  1. [4]
    imperialismus
    Link
    It's honestly sad how naive, perhaps wilfully so, some of these researchers were. I'm not sure if any of these great apes raised among humans truly led the fulfilling, healthy lives they deserved....

    It's honestly sad how naive, perhaps wilfully so, some of these researchers were. I'm not sure if any of these great apes raised among humans truly led the fulfilling, healthy lives they deserved. The latter part of this video goes into it and it's very chilling.

    For an example of how to do this kind of research right - or at least less wrong, I don't know, I'm not a primatologist - there's the Primate Research Institute in Japan. Their apes live in a large environment resembling a natural environment with plenty of opportunities to climb, play and socialize among themselves. They only conduct experiments when the apes choose to enter a specific enclosure designated for that. I remember I watched a documentary on that but I can't link it because I don't think it's available without a paywall (I think it was on CuriosityStream or something). But it's the same place Vsauce visited in this video. While looking this up I found out the kindly grandpa-esque researcher he interviews, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, has been accused of misappropriating research funds. I wanted to end this comment on a positive note but it doesn't seem like the world wants to give it to me.

    4 votes
    1. [3]
      mrbig
      Link Parent
      I did not watch this video, but I recently listened to a SYSK podcast about Koko. I went out with the impression that at times Koko's language was definitely embellished on "translation", but it...

      I did not watch this video, but I recently listened to a SYSK podcast about Koko. I went out with the impression that at times Koko's language was definitely embellished on "translation", but it is quite possible that she did "talk" at some level nevertheless. They mentioned another monkey that was even more impressive on a better controlled experiment (can't remember his name though).

      It looks like one of our members actually worked with Koko, so paging @Axelia!

      2 votes
      1. [2]
        imperialismus
        Link Parent
        Maybe you'll change your mind if you watch the video. There's so many issues, from the complete lack of syntax and grammar to the fact that the communication appears to be entirely transactional...

        Maybe you'll change your mind if you watch the video. There's so many issues, from the complete lack of syntax and grammar to the fact that the communication appears to be entirely transactional in nature - either prompted or to request an immediate object or action. Even human infants who don't know any grammar will communicate more deeply than that. Then there's the lack of transparency, with very little objective data, and what data exists does not support the conclusions made. Which means you have to take it on trust, and that becomes an issue when you see the ridiculous overinterpretations and projections that the researchers do when they leave you enough data to catch it.

        My favorite example being when Koko was asked "Do you like to talk to people?" in an event where people could ask questions via an online chat. She responded "fine nipple". Penny Patterson, Koko's lead caretaker, explained that this was an appropriate response to the question because nipple rhymes with people. This relies on the undocumented claim that Koko understands spoken rhymes. And it gets doubly ridiculous when you learn that Koko is apparently obsessed with nipples. Her first word in that chat was "nipple". Robin Williams has a whole standup segment about how he met Koko and she squeezed his nipples. And there's a story recounted in the video about how a female employee on the project was allegedly pressured by Patterson to expose her nipples to Koko, because the gorilla's really into that.

        The sad thing is that it wouldn't surprise me if the apes' native, non-verbal communication in the wild is at least as deep, if not deeper than the human-like communication they were taught but failed to master. But we humans want to remake everything in our own image.

        I think teaching non-human apes human language is a dead end in research, and as far as I know the funding's dried up because the results were controversial at best. I'm far more interested in research on non-human animals' native communication in the wild, but that's much, much harder to do and the results are not nearly as accessible. Without a doubt, gorillas, chimps, dolphins, and other animals do communicate, but they probably don't do so in ways that map one to one with human language.

        9 votes
        1. mrbig
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          I watched the video. Not really. I was already aware that the Koko experiments could be bogus, or at least not very scientific. But there are others. This video is unnecessarily cathegorical and I...

          I watched the video. Not really. I was already aware that the Koko experiments could be bogus, or at least not very scientific. But there are others. This video is unnecessarily cathegorical and I don't think that is wise. The debunking ethos is often incredibly biased under the guise of objectivity. It makes for something more persuasive though, and it attracts more views. Personally, I'd rather hold a skeptical position instead of an outright dismissal. That's admittedly less entertaining.

          5 votes
  2. [4]
    9000
    Link
    This was very sad. I found it convincing in the specific cases of Koko and Nim Chimpsky, but I don't find the categorical statement ("no animals can be taught to speak" or "language is unique to...

    This was very sad. I found it convincing in the specific cases of Koko and Nim Chimpsky, but I don't find the categorical statement ("no animals can be taught to speak" or "language is unique to humans") necessarily compelling from just this video essay alone. Yes, there were several attempts to teach animals to speak over two decades, but the video itself documents systemic pedagogical errors (such as relying on food rewards, not using sign-specific grammar structures, and, of course, the abuse) and only follows a few cases. Also, two decades is not actually very long, given the lifespans of these animals. Personally, I find the pedagogical criticisms very persuasive. We don't typically teach children by giving them sweets when they successfully answer a question, for example. It's not implausible, to me, that these failed experiments don't show the weakness of animal intelligence, but instead the weakness of human pedagogy and empathy.

    Some people say that it is hubris to think that we can teach animals to speak. I feel like it is hubris to try a few times and write it off as impossible. Now, how to do it ethically is a different question, but one I suspect also has an answer.

    4 votes
    1. Apos
      Link Parent
      I read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? last year. The book goes into quite a lot of studies that were done, it's really interesting.

      I read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? last year. The book goes into quite a lot of studies that were done, it's really interesting.

      4 votes
    2. eladnarra
      Link Parent
      Yeah, the studies that have been done obviously had major issues, and until they're redone in an ethical way that more closely maps how human children learn language, I don't think we can say for...

      Yeah, the studies that have been done obviously had major issues, and until they're redone in an ethical way that more closely maps how human children learn language, I don't think we can say for certain that apes are incapable of learning language in a similar way to humans.

      The various apes didn't learn syntax or complex grammar, but... Did any of the researchers use ASL consistently with grammar? It sounds like a lot of the research was focused on vocabulary drills. There was one Deaf participant who described signing for an uninterested chimp, but for the most part it seems like researchers didn't actually show the apes how to communicate rather than make simple requests for a reward. Did they show them two humans conversing in ASL, demonstrating actual communication? Maybe things like taking turns in communication are innately human... But maybe we learn it from watching grown-up conversations (and being told to wait our turn when we interrupt as little kids).

      I'd also be interested if there's a difference in having humans demonstrate ASL vs having apes of the same species. If we were to use computer graphics to make "videos" of chimpanzees using ASL to communicate, would a chimpanzee watching that be more interested in mimicking and learning?

      2 votes
    3. rogue_cricket
      Link Parent
      I haven't watched the video, but have you seen any of the channels of people teaching their pets to communicate via button-pushes? One such example is Bunny the dog, another one is Billi the cat....

      I haven't watched the video, but have you seen any of the channels of people teaching their pets to communicate via button-pushes? One such example is Bunny the dog, another one is Billi the cat.

      Obviously we don't necessarily understand how these animals conceptualize of these buttons internally, and there's really no grammar to speak of. But there have been a few instances where it at least seems like they've created a novel combination of buttons to communicate something that isn't easily communicable with just a single press.

      2 votes