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Koko, a gorilla who could do sign language, has died at 46 (metro.co.uk)
282 points by eplanit on June 21, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 96 comments



>> The popular gorilla, known for her extraordinary mastery of sign language, has passed away at the age of 46.

About the "extraordinary mastery of sign language", wikipedia has this to say:

As with other great ape language experiments, the extent to which Koko mastered and demonstrated language through the use of these signs is disputed.[4][5] But it is generally accepted that she did not use syntax or grammar, and that her use of language did not exceed that of a young human child.

(...)

Following Patterson's initial publications in 1978, a series of critical evaluations of her reports of signing behavior in great apes argued that video evidence suggested that Koko was simply being prompted by their trainers' unconscious cues to display specific signs, in what is commonly called the Clever Hans effect

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koko_(gorilla)


First, let me clearly state that I agree that the "science" surrounding Koko was not great, and that her language abilities are consistently overstated.

However, as someone who has met Koko I can also tell you that there is something there. She did not have a human mastery of sign language, but was capable of communicating new and unique ideas. It was remarkable to witness. She was a genuine friend to those who knew her well. As with most things the truth is somewhere in the middle, right?


How many of these "new and unique ideas" could be attributable to Koko and not her handlers? Almost all interpretations of what Koko's signing means come from her handlers, not from neutral observers.

Dogs can be trained to recognize hundreds of words, perform many tricks based on hand gestures, can engage in different body language to indicate different things that they want at the time, and can show true affection to their human companions or other pets in the house.

What bothers me most about Koko is that she has been presented as something entirely different than a smart, well trained dog; that she has some deeper understanding of language and can combine words in novel ways, but the evidence really looks like there's a lot of cherry picking and prompting by the researchers to get at that.


I mean, who's to say the humans you communicate with daily are actually conscious? They just appear that way because they look and talk like you, and you believe yourself to be conscious. If a neutral third party observer saw Helen Keller communicating to one of her "handlers" -- Someone with the specialized training to do such communication at all -- They might very well think the handlers are inferring special meaning, because Helen Keller looks like a retarded person that can't originate meaningful thoughts.

This obviously has implications upon our treatment of people with disabilities, people of different races/cultures etc.


Helen Keller was able to communicate directly with people without a specific facilitator, eventually by learning to speak, to write, to read braille, to understand sign language by touch, and to lip read by touch. She was best with her first teacher, Anne Sullivan, but she could communicate directly with other people in many ways without facilitation.

This definitely does have implication on treatment of people with disabilities; the same kind of pseudoscience was once popular with non-verbal autistic children, called "facilitated communication." However, some fairly basic blinded testing, showing the facilitator one picture and the subject another (possibly the same, possibly different), demonstrated that it was entirely the thoughts of the facilitator being communicated. Many of the facilitators didn't even realize this; they didn't realize they were subconsciously prompting.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facilitated_communication

I recommend the PBS documentary "Prisoners of Silence" on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sO9LyXuOQY

So yes, there are implications, and those implications are that it is important to be thorough in demonstrating that some kind of facilitator in any communication is actually accurately representing communication from the subject, as opposed to themselves.


How many new and unique ideas that you have come up with in life could be attributed to your parents, teachers , the media?


You're talking about the source of the idea.

I can't speak for lambda, but I believe what they meant is that the researchers only interpreted Koko's ideas as unique, or as ideas at all. There has never been scientific validation that she actually meant what the researchers thought she meant.

I think there's something wonderful about Koko and her relationship with humans. But at the same time, it saddens me that the scientists involved seem to have mostly treated her as a friend, and lacked the scientific rigor to answer some of the most important questions about her actions.


This isn't about "new and unique ideas" in the sense of some profound insight. I was responding to the "was capable of communicating new and unique ideas" from the parent, which is a way of paraphrasing some of the claims about Koko's language ability, in which it is claimed that Koko was going beyond mere use of single words to refer to literal objects or actions.

I can put together a complex sentence describing abstract ideas, which is what I'm doing here. A dog cannot; a dog can understand a single word or sign in isolation, and may be some amount of literal sequencing, but there is no ability to understand an arbitrarily complex sequence of signs or words containing abstraction like human language is capable of.

The claim about Koko's use of sign language is that she has been able to compose sentences out of combinations of words, and express abstract ideas; maybe somewhat more limited than humans in some way, but fundamentally the same way that human language works.

That's what the skepticism is about; since while it's clear that she could be trained to recognize individual words and produce individual signs, and maybe some limited pairs, all of the evidence of anything more complex seems to come from interpretation through her handlers, who could have been consciously or subconsciously prompting her, and are using their own theories of mind and inference ability to read more into Koko's actions than what is really there.

There's plenty of non-verbal communication you can do with a dog or even a cat. They can pick up on emotional states. They have memories. They can learn words or signs. They can be caring.

A lot of the claims about Koko seem to be either unsurprising for anyone who has owned a pet (yes, pets can sometimes be surprisingly emotionally intelligent), or go far beyond what the evidence actually supports, relying much too much on subjective judgements and unblinded tests by the researchers.

One of the reasons that this is a problem is that this exact same kind of thing is done with humans sometimes, in the form of "Facilitated Communication" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facilitated_communication), which is claimed to be a way of training "facilitators" to help calm and guide non-verbal autistic children's hands to be able to type out sentences and communicate.

This was a very popular form of assistance for a while, and it even led to autistic children being able to speak out about their abusive parents. Except, as it it turns out, it was entirely based on pseudoscience. Once you did any kind of blinded testing, where you showed something different to the facilitator as you did to the patient, they would spell out the word for what the facilitator saw. The parental abuse, for which parents had been kicked out of their own homes and not allowed contact with their children? Entirely imagined by the facilitators.

I'd recommend watching the PBS documentary "Prisoners of Silence" on this topic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sO9LyXuOQY).

Allowing this kind of pseudoscience to get so much coverage can cause real harm to people, and it erodes faith in the scientific process.


I agree with all the points you have presented, in that they seem to make sense to me.

Something you said stuck out to me though (triple asterisks around the word I want to put emphasis around):

> ...are using their own theories of mind and inference ability to read more into Koko's actions than what is really there.

Isn't that a judgement, that one should avoid when doing science. That is to say, the following could also be valid options, unless ruled out:

> ...something else into Koko's actions than what is really there.

> ...less into Koko's actions than what is really there.

Your thoughts?


Yes, I should have been more clear that what I meant was that this is one possible alternative explanation that hasn't been ruled out by the experiments done, not that this is the only possibility. I had said "could have been consciously or subconsciously prompting her" and should have also said "could have been using their own theories of mind and inference ability to read more into Koko's actions than what is really there."

I was just trying to list one more possible explanation that the experiments hadn't ruled out, not cover everything, but you're right, those are each also possibilities.


Why does it bother you that another animal might understand language? Everything humans have we got from our animal ancestors. Is language different? Is it divine?


I responded to this point in somewhat more depth in another comment:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17367375

What bothers me is not the idea that another animal could understand language, but the very poor evidence being presented for it in the case of Koko.

That coupled with how much coverage Koko got from media and celebrities can skew people's view of the scientific process and standards for evidence.

And very similar kinds of pseudoscience have been used with humans with non-verbal autism, in something called "facilitated communication," which has turned out to be entirely based on the facilitator's thoughts. This has caused real harm to people, with parents being accused of sexual abuse of their children, when it was all just imagined by the facilitator.

So what bothers me is the extreme carelessness of scientific process, and heavy amounts of self-promotion and publicity with extremely little skepticism, as that can lead people to not properly evaluating other similar claims like FC.


You're misrepresenting the OP. They were perfectly clear that they weren't objecting to the conclusion, but the poor, cherry-picked evidence that was used to support the conclusion. You can disagree about the quality of the evidence, but please don't put words in others' mouths.


>You're misrepresenting the OP.

no. The OP's "entirely different" is that religious dogma of "only humans have soul". Poisoned by the human exceptionality dogma over thousands of years, people refuse, implicitly and explicitly, the continuous incrementality of evolution and continue to cling to the divine-based "entirely different" like a drowning man clings to the flotation device.


The "entirely different" part is about specific claims about language.

There are many different ways animals are able to communicate with each other, and with humans. Sounds, gestures, songs, body language, scents, and so on.

They can get quite creative, they can be used to communicate emotion, they can indicate that the animals have some sense for the mental state of who they are communicating with, and so on. Almost all of this is fairly obvious to anyone who's ever owned a pet (though there are plenty of cases in which there can be some subjective bias there, so it can be good to devise better tests if you're really skeptical).

But none of them have been demonstrated to have the arbitrarily complex, abstract, compositional nature that human language does; in which a finite (but large) set of words or signs can be strung together in arbitrarily complex ways, allowing a countably infinite number of different ideas to be potentially conveyed.

This is qualitatively different than any other communication method that has been demonstrated in other animals.

There's no dogma about it; it's just something that is unique to humans, as far as we know, just like the amazing ability to manipulate skin color and texture is something that's unique to cuttlefish. There are some things that certain kinds of animals can do that other kinds of animals can't, like flight, breathing via water or air, producing venoms, and so on.

It would be a pretty big scientific breakthrough to discover that there was some mammal that could change its skin like cuttlefish, or to discover that a mammal could be trained to breath water.

Likewise, discovering that non-human animal can learn a human-like language, with its arbitrary complexity through compositionality and ability to express abstract thought, is a pretty big claim too. The problem is, some people make this claim, without sufficient evidence to back it up.


> to discover that a mammal could be trained to breath water.

this was done to dogs back in 20th century. The water was saturated with O2 to high levels. Again, the difference isn't the divine-granted qualitative "entirely different", it is just about continuous incrementally changing quantity.


That's not training dogs to breath water, that's altering the water to be breathable by dogs.

If you want to look at it that way, nothing is qualtitively "entirely different." We can all breath water to different degrees, and if you go down that route, then there's no real qualitative difference between mammals and fish, right?

Saying that these differences aren't qualitative and are just difference of degree isn't really a useful way to have discourse. There is absolutely a qualitative difference between how respiration works in mammals and fish, and just because you can manipulate the environment in some way to make it work doesn't change that.

Language is in the same way qualitatively different than other forms of communication, just as mammals are qualitatively different than fish.

Humans can communicate in language, and can communicate other ways. If I go to China (and I don't speak Chinese), I can buy food by pointing to it and having someone hold up their fingers to signify the price. I'm not communicating through language, but I have communicated effectively.

And you wouldn't call what I did there sign language; it is not a consistent set of signs shared by a group of people which can be composed into an infinite number of sentences with arbitrarily complex meanings. It is instead a fairly limited method of communication which can be used to communicate a fairly direct concept, I need that thing, along with a response that simply indicates a number for how much is expected in payment.

I don't know why you keep on referring to the distinction I'm making here as "divine-granted." I'm simply making a distinction between language, and communication that is not language.


Nope. Here's a link to the original comment https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17365870.


Why does it bother you that someone is being skeptical?


Well, the ancestors of birds, i.e. theropods, could not fly. Yet birds can fly.

"Everything" that birds have they didn't get from their ancestors. Like humans, birds came up with a few tricks of their own down the line.


> As with most things the truth is somewhere in the middle, right?

Personally I really hate this assertion. The truth doesn't care if it is in the middle or not.


Yes, the truth can be somewhere else entirely. And it doesn't have to fall along some neat axis made up by humans.


The truth does not care but human opinions tend to be biased towards extremes.


Well, that’s what you get for interpreting idioms literally.


> Well, that’s what you get for interpreting idioms literally.

How do you think it should be interpreted? The parent interpreted it correctly and asserted it was wrong.


You know it's a metaphor, right?


A metaphor for shit thinking that people interpret as profound. A deepity.


Yea nothing profound about the eightfold path... /s


Humans are wired to see meaning. For example the simple 1960’s program ELIZA was perceived by some to be intelligent, even though it was rather simple. In a very novel situation such as an encounter with Koko, a person would be primed to see meaning in almost every action, whether or not it was really warranted.


I think its rather binary. Koko could either form complex thoughts into rudimentary sign language or she could not and was simply mimicking what her trainers expected of her in a Pavlovian way.

You and I may have different opinions of Koko based on our differing experiences and it is right and fair that we hold those opinions, and we may always be faced with this uncertainty, but the "truth" whatever it may be, is probably not somewhere in the middle. :-)


What makes you think that language is binary? That strikes me as absurdly unlikely.


Either Koko could communicate complex thoughts, or she was just spamming nonsense and the trainers are deceiving us. That's the binary part.

Surely a lot of what she signed was garbage, and surely she could communicate some of the simplest things regardless (like a dog can). But if she legitimately communicated even one complex thought with signs, that's a binary difference from the rest of the animal kingdom.


> Either Koko could communicate complex thoughts, or she was just spamming nonsense and the trainers are deceiving us.

If there is a worldview where it makes sense to structure thinking of communication as a dichotomy between "complex and nonsense", I cannot see it.


> Either Koko could communicate complex thoughts, or she was just spamming nonsense and the trainers are deceiving us. That's the binary part.

That's a false dilemma.

"Either Koko could communicate complex thoughts, or she could not."

That is a binary choice. And even that is contingent on precise definitions of complex, communicate and thought.


Maybe. The question is to what extent personal experiences of this sort help anyone else understand what was really going on with Koko.

I mean, I would personally really like to know exactly how proficient she was with language and what was the extent of her ability to communicate with Patterson and others. But since I wasn't there and didn't try to communicate with her, I'll never know.

And because the only evidence that she was at all capable of communication is in Patterson's shoddy publications and personal anecdotes like the one you relay, I have to put the question in the "impossible to ever know" bin.

Edit: Look, a personal connection, with a human or an animal, is a wonderful thing to have and I don't wish to belittle it. But what good is it to you, say, to know that I had a warm friendship with my grandmother's partner and that he was the only person ever to manage to teach me how to play backgammon well? I'd guess- not much.

The problem is that Koko's linguistic abilities are a scientific question and personal relations with her don't really cut the mustard as an answer.


> But what good is it to you, say, to know that I had a warm friendship with my grandmother's partner and that he was the only person ever to manage to teach me how to play backgammon well? I'd guess- not much.

I think you dramatically underestimate the power of people to empathize, which requires great intelligence and (yes) is vulnerable to manipulation.

When you, a virtual stranger to me, write about a "warm friendship" with an elderly person who taught you to "play backgammon well", an avalanche of emotional associations surrounding happiness, childhood, security, caring and many other things wash over me.

Which brings me to the point that communication is an intellectual, emotional, and all-encompassing phenomenon and our attempts to scientifically understand communication between sentient beings (including interspecies) is at present unequal to our ability to perceive meaningful communication is occurring.

One day our scientific understanding of primate cognition may better explain the ability of humans to communicate with non-humans. Until that time, I am among those who trust the reports of Dr. Francine Patterson, Dr. Ronald Cohn, and others who have communicated directly with Koko that Koko was capable of communicating meaningfully.

EDIT: add "scientific" to first sentence of last paragraph.


>> When you, a virtual stranger to me, write about a "warm friendship" with an elderly person who taught you to "play backgammon well", an avalanche of emotional associations surrounding happiness, childhood, security, caring and many other things wash over me.

Let me ask you then: how do you know that what I reported is true? Maybe this "warm friendship" I report, never really happened. Maybe only I experienced it as a "warm friendship". Maybe I only remember it now as such, my recollection distroted by the passage of time, or wishful thinking.

You can as easily empathise with a misreported emotion as you can with an accurately reported one. That is a bit of a problem when what you are looking for is some understanding of objective reality.

>> Which brings me to the point that communication is an intellectual, emotional, and all-encompassing phenomenon and our attempts to scientifically understand communication between sentient beings (including interspecies) is at present unequal to our ability to perceive meaningful communication is occurring.

Well, sure. But just because we don't fully understand communication doesn't mean we'll trust anything anyone says about communicating with an animal.

Like, we don't know whether there are other technological civlisations out there but that doesn't mean we'll believe all the reports of alien visitations and so on.


Regarding the authenticity of your anecdote, I was very clear to state

> I think you dramatically underestimate the power of people to empathize, which requires great intelligence and (yes) is vulnerable to manipulation.

Second, when I say I trust these reporters it's because I don't have access to more authoritative information or analyses, but I still maintain a reasonable skepticism.

That is, I defer to those presumed to be experts while acknowledging that the scientific value of the claims of said experts are in debate.

I believe the people who report meaningful communication with Koko themselves believe they are having meaningful communication. I acknowledge that the scientific understandings of communication, understanding, and cognition cannot easily be brought to bear.

Basically, I try to keep a nuanced view especially because, from what I understand, ethnological reports are considered to be important in the fields of primatology and anthropology.

EDIT: remove extraneous pronoun


>> Second, when I say I trust these reporters it's because I don't have access to more authoritative information or analyses, but I still maintain a reasonable skepticism.

I just finished reading this (one of the references in the wikipedia article):

Petitto, L. A., & Seidenberg, M. S. (1979). On the evidence for linguistic abilities in signing apes. Brain and Language, 8(2), 162-183.

Quick version: Patterson's research with Koko was poorly documented and does not stand up to scrutiny. For instance, instead of compiling a corpus of Koko's utterances she presented only individual examples. This makes it impossible to know whether an utterance reported as being in context in a specific situation was actually as claimed- because we have no idea how often Koko signed the same utterance in different contexts [the article needs Elsevier access. See my profile email if you have questions].

It is possible to find many more examples of strong criticisms of Patterson's research with Koko, as well as other similar research (Gardner and Gardner with Washoe and Terrace and Bever with Nim Chimpsky). Basically, I don't think there's anyone who thinks apes have shown any linguistic ability (well, apes except for humans, of course).

>> Regarding the authenticity of your anecdote (...)

Well, it is exactly the authenticity of my anecdote that is what a scientific analysis would need to determine. Our ability to empathise is not questioned. The question is whether we can use reports of our feelings as evidence to make claims about the nature of reality.

If I visit my ancient ancestors' ruined citadel on the Athens Akroplois, my chest might heave with emotion. But what does that tell us about my ancestors, or their building of the Akropolis (or even about whether they were my ancestors in the first place)?

What information can you get from reports of an emotional state, other than that someone reports an emotional state?


The old "our science is limited, so I will 'trust' garbage emotional arguments."


Yours is an unfortunate interpretation of what I intended to say, which may be my fault for not fully elaborating.

Our science is limited and we should apply it to the best of our ability. The dubious methodology employed by Dr. Patterson undercuts many of the scientific claims she makes.

But in the fields of primatology (and anthropology) first hand accounts ("thick description" practiced in ethnology) are considered data though not quite in the sense of quantifiable, numerical data we are used to in engineering and computer science.

The people who have direct contact with Koko and provide descriptions of their communication with Koko are documenting their empirical experience, observations that provide detail and bias.

Taking another approach, communicating with Koko is basically an organism-to-organism example of a Turing test and, from what I understand, human evaluators of Koko's communication tend to conclude Koko was communicating intelligently.

Also, labeling emotional reactions, as they pertain to communication, "garbage" is probably a mistake. Emotions are quite important in human communication, and emotions are increasingly important, for example, in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence. Dismissing emotions wholesale as "garbage" is probably a scientific error.

EDIT: Add last paragraph. Revise first sentence of last paragraph.


The problem with all of this is that using these kinds of emotional reactions to evaluate research can lead to making some significant errors that can cause real harm.

As an example, facilitated communication was once touted as a way in which non-verbal autistic people could communicate with the outside world (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facilitated_communication). The facilitators thought it worked. Parents thought it worked. It felt great to be able to talk to your kids who you could never talk to before.

The problem is, it was complete bunk. If you did any kind of actually blinded test, such as showing one picture to the facilitator and another to the subject, they would write out what the facilitator saw. The facilitators themselves weren't even aware they were doing this.

But on the basis of this completely pseudoscientific method, there had been parents who had been accused of sexual assault of their children and kicked out of their house because of it, when in reality the abuse had just been imagined by the facilitator.

Emotions are definitely important in communication, and communicating emotions with animals is definitely possible.

But there are real reasons for demanding better evidence before claiming that you are interpreting language on behalf of some other person or animal.

> quantifiable, numerical data we are used to in engineering and computer science

You make it sound like quantifiable, numerical data is a fairly niche thing, but of course it's used in pretty much every field of scientific inquiry.

Science is the practice of using the best tools we have to better understand the world around us. Subjective description of interactions with the world around us is just a very basic baseline from which to start inquiry, not something that you can say has led to meaningful results.

In this case, it doesn't even necessarily require substantial numerical data to evaluate these claims; just basic blinding procedures, like evaluating the results of Koko describing something that she saw that her handler did not, and getting some basic statistics over a number of interactions to see if they do better than chance.


Which new and unique ideas did Koko personally communicate to you?


I guess this effect is why the reports are amplified, communication is such a powerful thing for us that even limited means to do so with an animal feels grand.

I wish I could met Koko


I want to credit this to Steven Pinker but I'm not certain... He had a great metaphor for this phenomenon of people perceiving human linguistic capabilities in animals: imagine if some elephant scientists were looking at various species' noses, they'd be saying, "look at how they can wiggle their nose! That's just astounding! And this one can balance a ball on his nose! It's uncanny how elephant he is!"

The point being that our ability for language is biologically a very unique facility, even if it can sometimes sound like more ordinary non-linguistic communication. And it's not uncommon in nature for a species to have a very highly evolved capability, at the same time, it takes evolution to make that happen. No amount of stretching, for instance, is going to give you a giraffe's neck.


Steven Pinker definitely talks about Koko in The Language Instinct... IIRC, let's just say he doesn't have the highest opinion of the experiment ;-)


Young human child? That’s pretty impressive.

Did scientists try to breed intelligent monkies like breeding dogs?


No but they absolutely should. On a slightly tangential note I think there should be a handful of programs focused on domestication of species similar to the Soviet experiments in the domestication of foxes. We could learn a lot more about domestication and in a few hundred years have new pets! I doubt it would even be that expensive on a yearly basis to attempt to domesticate eg lemurs (who are great candidates due to their social/pack behavior in many species, similar to dogs)


Saw a nice video on the dispute of apes' mastery of sign language over at NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/07/25/5385804...


That said, one would presume there would be no shortage of jealous rival researchers ready to say any BS as a critique for any study.

It happens in way more rigorous domains, much less in the question of whether an animal can learn some basic communication.

The jury is still out there as far as I'm concerned.


basic communication is not language. The jury is not out, I'm not going to repeat the facts but it is pretty clear to ANY linguist that Koko and all of the animal kingdom do not have language.

CHOMSKY: That’s about like saying that Olympic high jumpers fly better than young birds who’ve just come out of the egg — or than most chickens. These are not serious comparisons. For whatever reason, the study of human higher mental faculties is pervaded by a curious form of irrationality, foreign to the sciences.


>basic communication is not language.

That's an statement based on arbitrary (and vague) definitions of the (already vague) words "communication" and "language".

It also presupposes what it should try to prove: that Koko was only capable of "basic communication".

(Not to mention the quality of our general understanding of language, which is primitive in itself, as is our understanding of how we, and even more so how animals, think).

>CHOMSKY: That’s about like saying that Olympic high jumpers fly better than young birds who’ve just come out of the egg — or than most chickens. These are not serious comparisons. For whatever reason, the study of human higher mental faculties is pervaded by a curious form of irrationality, foreign to the sciences.

Well, Chomsky wouldn't be the best example against irrationality. He has his closely held beliefs he touts whether they pan out or not. And I'm not even taking about his politics, rather his concept of brains "hardwire" grammar center...


>> That said, one would presume there would be no shortage of jealous rival researchers ready to say any BS as a critique for any study.

Well, science is a debate- and not necessarily a nice one. There will always be rivals, waiting in the wings to skewer your arguments. The ideas that end up being adopted by the majority are the ones best supported by their originators, either with evidence or whatever else happens to be handy.


Hopefully this is the end of experiments on animal intelligence run by a closely involved researcher-caretaker over the course of many years.

There's little evidence published about the research topic, great monetary expense, and there was also the human cost, where the lead researcher on the project likely sexually harassed her subordinates, claiming that the gorilla had demanded to see the subordinates' breasts.

here is the definitive takedown of the enterprise: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/201...


Safkow estimated Koko received between 70 and 100 pills a day

Woah!


Wow, that was a great read. Thanks for sharing.


"claiming that the gorilla had demanded to see the subordinates' breasts."

I dunno, if a gorilla wants to see your nipples, are you going to feel safe saying no?


I'm not going to feel safe performing sexual favors in the office regardless of a gorilla's presence.

If my boss tells me that I may suffer violence for not performing sexual favors, I'm going to sue my boss.


When I was a kid, my parents kept a bookshelf with a vast library of National Geographic issues. I used to read them at random in idle periods, and I specifically remember the Koko's Kitten edition.

I never realised that she was still alive.

Makes me wonder though, in the internet age when people aren't in the habit of giving over large physical spaces to things like Nat Geo or Encyclopedias, how much getting information in this mode is diminished; as opposed to dog-on-surfboard social media snippets.


I think the modern equivalent is the wikidive.

I too lament the lack of a huge library at home, but I'm not worried about other people losing this. The kind of people who consume nothing but funny cat videos aren't typically the kind of people who would stock their home with reference materials anyway, right?


People are always complaining when HN surfaces an interesting article not dated in the last 5 days.

(by which I mean, the type of reading you talk about happens enough here that complaints about it happening are a thing)



I didn't realize Daniel Quinn died in February


Koko, a gorilla who some claimed could do sign language, has died at 46


I don't know how anyone who would watch the videos of Koko interacting with her human friend could think what you state. To me it's undeniable that Koko is indeed using sign language to express herself.


You mean like when Koko would get the sign wrong about 5 times in a row and her owner would be like "Oh you're so silly" instead of admitting Koko had no idea what was going on?

These videos are all highly edited to show what they want you to see.


The claim was that Koko could use ASL (American Sign Language). This is not even supported by the main researcher's, Francine Patterson's, own work:

Even at the level of hand shapes, the degree of correspondence is questionable. An unspecified number of Koko’s hand shapes were reduced or modified from the citation forms in ASL because of the ape’s lack of manual dexterity and other limitations. From Patterson’s discussion (pp. 80-86), it appears that she modified Koko’s signs extensively, and that the resulting formational criteria for any given sign were quite loose. She states, “For example, water and rubber are simplified from the W and X hand configurations [in ASL], respectively, to a forefinger extended from a loose or compact fist” (p. 80). It is clear that Patterson tolerated variations in the form of an individual sign which in ASL would change its meaning entirely. Note that signs modified in this manner are not ASL signs. More importantly, her examples lead one to question how she could unequivocably determine the “meaning” of a particular hand shape. How, for example, did she determine whether Koko was signing water or rubber? Similarly, many of Koko’s signs were apparently formed by merely pointing (e.g., this, that, there, you, etc.). How were these signs differentiated? Patterson glossed one hand movement as the sign “comegimme.” Come, give, and me are three semantically distinct words; in ASL they are physically distinct signs. It appears in this case that Koko used a beckoning gesture which was compatible with both “come” and “gimme” interpretations. Patterson’s hedging on the interpretation of this behavior is inconsistent with her assignment of very specific meanings to other signs (e.g., pound, in the sense of striking something), and her fine distinctions between highly semantically related signs (e.g., candy and sweet).

From:

On the evidence for linguistic abilities in signing apes; Laura A.Petitto, Mark S.Seidenberg.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0093934X79...

The claims that Koko learned sign language seem to have been the result of very subjective interpretations of her behaviour.


I'm curious if you know any sign languages. I think you have to have some proficiency with the French sign language family (e.g. ASL) (beyond beginner because beginners are very brittle to changes in accent and style) to judge Koko's abilities for yourself


You are convincing yourself of what you want to see. Yes, Koko could reproduce various signs with her hands, but she did not have anything near language.


You seem to be convincing yourself just fine as well.


Can you prove or disprove that she did not have a language ?


I'd say the burden of proof is on those who claim she did have language.

If you watch the videos, her interpreter takes very simple words, changes them, adds context, turns them into longer sentences, and basically forms Koko's language for her.

I firmly believe Koko had complex and nuanced thoughts and desires, but I don't believe the interpreter was practicing science or interpreting honestly.

There's evidence of this in the sexual-abuse allegations against the interpreter, where she admitted to changing "nipple" to "people" and explained it away as, "Nipple sounds like people!"


I have no problems believing that her handler may have been charitable, but the question whether Koko had or did not have a language is far more difficult to answer than the typical authoritative claims make it sound.

Does a 3 yr old human child have a language ? Do the Sentinelese [0] have a language. Are we applying the same standards to animal language/intelligence that we apply to humans ? Or is it that we rely heavily on the edge case that we share a common language, and selectively extrapolate.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentinelese


>Does a 3 yr old human child have a language ?

Yes.

>Do the Sentinelese [0] have a language.

Yes. (Why do you think they don't?)


> Why do you think they don't

I don't.

The points are (i) how do you prove that without invoking the 'humans have language" as an axiom or "I can talk to a human' privilege and (ii) does one use the same standards to prove or disprove that Koko had or did not have a language.

You would need a scientific experiment capable of proving or disproving that the subject possesses a language but the inference procedure does not use the 'human' privilege. If you do need the privilege the experiment is incapable of proving a non-human has language even when they do.


This is the first time I've heard of the Sentinelese, but based on the Wikipedia articles[0], they have been observed using enough words, grammar, etc. for linguists to make hypotheses about how it is (or is not) related to and inter-intelligible with the languages of nearby ethnic groups.

If "the Sentinelese have been observed using sounds and patterns of sounds in ways that match what we have always known/referred to as language, therefore they have language" is not an acceptable statement, then it's hard to see how any statement on the subject can be made at all (including the statement "Koko has language").

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentinelese_language, as well as the one you linked directly to


Thanks for joining the thread even though everyone has probably left the building.

In the very first paragraph of the Wikipedia page you linked, you will see this --

"Due to the lack of contact between the Sentinelese people and the rest of the world for the past three centuries, nothing is known of their language" -- from your [0]

Everything about their language is a presumption/guess: "These people are geographically close to these other tribes we know, therefore its very likely they have a similar language." Nothing wrong with that line of reasoning, except that it has very limited scope.

My purpose of introducing the Sentinelese to the discussion was precisely to show that our judgement of whether someone or something has a language is strongly biased. Case in point the Sentinelese. No one for a second will doubt that they have a language but there is no direct verification, only extrapolation.

"It is presumed that the islanders speak a single language and that it is a member of one of the Andamanese language families.[4] Based on what little is known about similarities in culture and technology and their geographical proximity, it is supposed that their language is related to the Ongan languages, such as Jarawa, rather than to Great Andamanese.[6] On the two documented occasions when Onge-speaking individuals were taken to North Sentinel Island in order to attempt communication, they were unable to recognise any of the language spoken by the inhabitants in the brief and hostile exchanges that resulted." -- from your [0]

Our mechanisms for language detection are too limited in scope to be applied widely. Forget cross species inference even within humans it runs into difficulties -- case in point Indus valley script.

Consider a non-native English speaker barely skilled in English. Her English will very likely not adhere to English grammar and may not have the expected recursive structure. Consider the language with which we interact with Google search, most of the time they don't have recursive structure. It would be presumptuous of an observer (say from another planet) to deem that the one interacting with Google does not have language because there is no rich/recursive linguistic structure.


It's not an "axiom" that humans have language. We have overwhelming empirical evidence that all human societies have languages. You might as well doubt whether the Sentinelese fart.

Koko did not have language because, inter alia,she could not form sentences with a hierarchical structure, something which all cognitively normal humans are capable of. So yes, judging by the exact same standards, we have language and she doesn't. The reason that you have the "privilege" of talking to humans and not to gorillas is simply that humans can talk (and/or sign) whereas gorillas can't.

This is all entirely clear cut and uncontroversial, whatever a few silly newspaper articles might have said.


You are proving by extrapolation. That's no good when we want to use it to gauge whether animals have language. That line of argument will work only for humans.

I used Sentinelese just as an example to bring out the fact that we would jump to the conclusion that they have a language just because they are human.

Prove to me that Sentinelese have language without extrapolating. That is prove it without using "all humans have language. Sentinelese are human. Therefore Sentinelese have language". Nothing wrong with that line of reasoning, but its limited in scope.

I am asking for specification of a scientific experiment that can be used to check with acceptable false positives and false negatives whether someone/something has a language that can work beyond the human species. From your tone of authority it should be a piece of cake for you.


There's no "extrapolation" involved -- just empirical observation of humans and gorillas. I mean, do you think there's a serious possibility that gorillas have language and we just haven't noticed? That seems about as plausible as the idea that penguins can secretly fly, or that tigers don't actually have fur. You don't need a fancy experiment to figure this stuff out. The people doing the fancy experiments were trying to find support for an inherently implausible hypothesis (that gorillas have a dormant linguistic capacity), and failed to find any such evidence. Case closed. Thanks to their pointless research program, we are now even more* sure that gorillas don't have language than we were before.

>I used Sentinelese just as an example to bring out the fact that we would jump to the conclusion that they have a language just because they are human

Well, yes, and we would jump to the conclusion that a pig couldn't fly just because it's a pig. So there's no sense in which that kind of argument is limited to humans. We know enough about humans to know that any human society will have a language, and we know enough about gorillas to know that they don't have language.


You are persistently avoiding the question by deflecting focus to what I think. What I think is irrelevant.

This is the question I asked:

I am asking for specification of a scientific experiment that can be used to check with acceptable false positives and false negatives whether someone/something has a language that can work beyond the human species. From your tone of authority it should be a piece of cake for you.

> That seems about as plausible as the idea that penguins can secretly fly, or that tigers don't actually have fur.

Then it would be an easy peasy to prove it. Please indulge me.

> we know enough about gorillas to know that they don't have language

Citation needed. I am not disputing that. What I am interested in is specification/description of a scientific experiment that is capable of showing "foo does not have a language"


You might as well ask for a specification of a scientific experiment proving that dogs can't perform operas. Humans have been observing gorillas for a long time and have seen no indication of a linguistic capacity. Perhaps a gorilla will surprise us and speak. And maybe a dog will surprise us by performing Nessun Dorma. It's not the business of science to rule out every mad fantasy someone might dream up.


> You might as well ask for a specification of a scientific experiment proving that dogs can't perform operas.

That shallow, low brow trolling. You seem to be incapable of providing an argument and have to resort to wild exaggerated analogies. Rather ironic given this a thread on whether Gorillas have or can acquire a language.

If it was so cut and dry as dog performing operas, there would not have been so much human interest in this topic.


I believe it is as cut and dry. Not sure what leads you to think that it isnt. The overwhelming scientific consensus has always been that humans are the only known species with a linguistic capacity. Gorillas are among the less plausible of the potential counterexamples.


To people doubting whether the ape "understood," the language, a useful test is whether it used language as a) a tool to operate on its environment through others, and b) to realize individually originated intent.

There is another criteria for basic intelligence whether the subject is capable of reasoning about objects that are not physically present.

A dog scratching at a door to signal its desire that it wants you to open it, is arguably using language.

Responding to commands is not necessarily using or understanding language as it can just be explained as being acted upon.

I'm sure there is a philosophical catgory for this interpretation, of language as tool, but it has a lot of ethical consequences.


Surprised to see no mention of "put the kitten on my head", the most adorable sequence of symbols that has ever come out of an intelligent animal.

https://www.petcha.com/koko-the-gorilla-gets-new-kitten-frie...


RIP Koko. Sad coincidence "World's oldest Sumatran orangutan, Puan, dies in captivity at Perth Zoo at the age of 62"

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-19/oldest-orangutan-in-th...


I find it very humanlike that after being gifted the tools of communication Koko didn't decide to become a gorrilla literacy advocate. Instead, she chose to spend her time hobnobbing with the likes of A-listers like TV's Mister Roger's and Robin Williams.


RIP Koko. I know many treat the claims of inter species communication like this with great skepticism (for historical reasons I believe), but I personally find the evidence overwhelming, and very inspiring, although not to be exaggerated either.

This clip proves some of it I think: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNuZ4OE6vCk


I was very sad to hear this. I still remember in Elementary school encountering the book "Koko's kitten".


Was Koko able to talk to other gorillas or was it due to human captivity, she could only talk to humans?


Very few (non-human) apes have ever learned any sign language, and Koko's ability to sign was highly predicated on having a specific interpreter nearby.


There was another gorilla that learned sign language before Koko, he lived with her and I think they 'taught' each other signs.


let's make a subset of an human language for dolphins.


My one year old does sign language.


Reminds me of this Neil deGrasse Tyson bit:

https://youtu.be/sLYorVnA44U




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