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Close encounters of the primate kind. Review of The Education of Koko by Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden New York Holt Rinehart and Winston 1981 224 pp $15

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American Journal of Primatology 2353-358 (1982)
Close Encounters of the Primate Kind
Review of The Education of Koko by Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden, New York,
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981, 224 pp, $15.95.
Speaking of Apes: A Critical Anthology of Two-way Communication with Man, edited by
Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok,New York and London, Plenum Press, 1980,
480 pp, $37.50.
The possibility of humanlike, two-way communication with an alien species seems to
have fascinated mankind for some time. In fiction, the feral children, Mowgli and Tarzan, managed to acquire the rudiments of the animal’s speech from snake to panther to
ape. By simply being raised in these different linguistic communities, these two heroes
bridged the cross-species language gap. The two books reviewed herein, Patterson and
Linden [1981] and Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok (19801, document the reverse paradigm,
apes raised and taught by human beings in an attempt to share a common language
code. Despite this common direction, the similarity between these volumes is only fur
deep. The Patterson and Linden book is a popular book written (I believe) to sway the
common reader into believing the gorilla, Koko, has “acquired a human language” (pxi).
The Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok book is a collection of papers, dating from the sixties,
that document every ape-language project from the Kellog’s Gua [1932] to the Rumbaughs Sherman and Austin [I9791 in an attempt to prove to the scientific community
the speciousness of all such projects. Indeed, both books wear their hearts on their
dedications. The Patterson book was dedicated to her two gorillas, Koko and Michael
with the comment “fine animal gorilla” supplied by Koko herself. The Sebeok volume
was dedicated to Oscar Pfungst, the man who discovered the hoax of Clever Hans. Thus,
these books represent polar positions on several continua: Patterson and Linden [1981],
a popular paean to the linguistic ape, and Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok [1980],a plea for a
professional purge of what they would call semiscientific assaults on the exclusivity of
human language.
IJnfortunately, the world at large may only know of science’sattempt at cross-species
language pedagogy from exposure t o the Patterson and Linden book. The author’s loose
use of terms and biases are abundant. For example, early in the book the reader hears of
Dr. Patterson’s joy that “Koko said her first word” (p 28). Many researchers (eg,
Savage-Rumbaugh, Rumbaugh, and Boysen in the Sebeoks’ volume) have seriously
questioned whether a “word,”and all its attendant conceptual complexity, is isomorphic
from man to ape. Patterson and Linden’s interpretation goes far beyond the actual
phenomenon described, which was Koko producing a recognizable sign in American
Sign Language. Contrary to many assertions in this book, Koko never said anything;
she signed. The problem would not be so crucial had the authors consistently used signs
and signed instead of word and said or spoke or vice versa once defined. Instead, their
descriptions of Koko’s behavior shows that the authors are convinced that the words are
0275-2565/82/0301-04-0353$02.00 0 1982 Alan R. Liss, Inc.
synonymous in Koko’s case. Clearly, they want the reader to believe that Koko uses a
form of language, and are not above glossing over important distinctions to subtly affect the reader’s opinion where the data may not.
The volume is organized into three sections. The first details Dr. Patterson’s history of
setting up the Koko project. Here we find hints of developing resistance to her con
tinued tutorage of Koko from the local zoo and Stanford University, and her final success in obtaining custody of Koko. Yet again, the omissions in their brief history may
worry the astute reader. Has Koko received the same kind of scientific acclaim that the
book aims t o achieve in the public arena? Sadly, I think not, since evidence of scientific
progress, as indicated by scientific publications, is conspicuously absent from the
reference section. All sections contain many pictures of Koko from infancy to adolescence, some in postures that the reader is told are signs (with the translations provided
in subtitles). Unfortunately, the readers must rely on the authors to supply the context
and hence, the pictures cannot be treated as real data. Yet, most of the naive readers will
take every picture and captioned interpretation at face value.
The book does give the reader a clear sense of Patterson’s dedication and emotional investment in Koko: “She began to get to me. She was not just the subject of an experiment, she was a baby ...” (p 40). At the end of the section is a two-page chapter to make
average day revealed in moderate detail (menus and all). If this was an attempt to make
the reader familiar with gorilla husbandry, it was too sketchy to be informative. For example, the reader is still unaware whether the daily routine was similar throughout
Koko’s infancy into adolescence or whether it was different in her several abodes. Surprisingly, the social aspects of maintaining Koko are revealed only in anecdotal form
throughout the book. In the beginning, Koko was treated much as a human infant. In
later years, the book reveals that Koko had “amind of her own.”To maintain control over
Koko’s behavior, a human male was employed as a threat. How any human could
threaten an adult gorilla is curious. Maybe the indirect reference to Koko’s fear of a cattle prod is a clue. Regardless, the problem is never explicated in any coherent or detailed
The second section is a comparison of Koko’s language achievements with chimpanzees and human children. The reporting of the data is clear and concise with simple
graphs delineating Koko’s growth in vocabulary and “utterance” (sign chain) length.
Here the reader is told of the unfair comparison between language research with children and apes, with the data from children accepted at face value and ape data requiring
endless controls and scientific rigor. This point is well taken. Children’s grunts and
mumbles are assumed to mean something because they will develop into mature language users in several years. Apes must prove that their signed mumbles and grunts are
in some fashion linguistic at all. However, the extent of Koko’s production and comprehension must be questioned. One wonders how Koko’s “jokes”were scored. When asked
what color her nest of white towels was, Koko responded “red.” The authors concluded
that Koko was joking. Was she joking or simply in error?
The question of Koko’s “intelligence” is also reported in the second section. Koko has
been administered several human intelligence tests since 1972. Despite the acknowledgment that the human tests were normalized on human children and therefore meaningless in comparing apes and children, the authors blithelyreport scores “in the 70 to 90
range” (p 127). They also state that Koko’s “mental age increased 19 months in a sample
22-month period” (p 127).The authors fail t o report whether Koko was repeatedly given
the same test to arrive at these results. If so, simple test-retest learning can account for
the improvement. Again, we see the problems of reporting data in the popular realm.
Boring details that are crucial to the scientific evaluation of the results are omitted.
In the last section, a “gorilla view of things”is offered. This section is largely redundant
with information supplied in the prior sections. Now whole chapters are devoted to
gorilla “jokes”and “insults,”respectively. To the naive reader these chapters may be the
Close Encounters of the Primate Kind
most dangerous of all, as we have only the authors on which to rely for the interpretation
and context of Koko’s signs. There is also a chapter devoted to Michael, a male gorilla.
He was purchased to counter the complaint that Koko’s continued participation in
language instruction obviated the possibility of breeding an endangered species. The
authors only mention this aspect of Michael’spresence and describe him as Koko’s companion and another ape student of American Sign Language. Very little is said of
Michael’s conversational or copulatory accomplishments. The concluding chapters are
commendably cautious only in describing the mind of Koko as revealed by her signs. In
contrast, the author’s are not in the least reluctant to attribute language status to any of
Koko’s signs. One gets the impression that the authors now believe that Koko: (1)
perceives things much the way humans do; (2) has attained a communication status
equivalent to a preschool child; but (3) doesn’t care to tell anyone about it.
The Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok book, by contrast, is repleat with scientific data and
commentary on two-way, man-ape communication. If any teacher needs a complete
compendium of most of the classic papers and reports for use as a graduate text, this is
definitely the book. However, i t must be granted that the introductory chapter is incredibly biased. Their bias can be summed up in Sebeoks quote of Stumpf, who recognized
that those hoaxed by Clever Hans “made the initial mistake of looking for in the horse
what should have been sought in the man” (p 417). I t is these authors’ heartfelt conviction that all man-ape communication is a form of the Clever Hans phenomenon. If scientific acceptance is based upon an advocacy principle, then the Sebeoks’book certainly
outlines this criticism of the ape language studies as never before. No other single source
contains so extensive a coverage of the topic, regardless of the editors’ perspective.
All of the contributions to this book have appeared elsewhere with the exception of the
Sebeoks lengthy introductory chapter, which appears for the first time in this volume.
I t is in the first chapter that the reader is introduced to the “Clever Hans” hypothesis.
The authors frame their point by dichotomizing different training techniques as either:
(1)apprentissage, where animals are scientifically and objectively trained on a task, or
( 2 ) dressage, where the subjects are subjectively trained on a task that is designed to
mislead the observer. Presumably, these terms have been borrowed from horse
dressage, in which horses respond to very slight movements of the reins to make it appear that the animal changes gaits with no visible commands from the rider. Regardless
of the task or training method, if the result apes human behavior, the Sebeoks label it
dressage and all other experiments as apprentissage. Every single man-ape language
project is then reviewed in the light of this alternative explanation with a singlemindedness of purpose to rival the Spanish Inquisition. They draw similarities between
the ape research and stage conjury, water witching, and confidence crimes, as if all appropriately fell under the same rubric. Heaping complaint upon complaint, the introductory chapter accuses the ape researchers of inaccurate recording, anthropomorphism,
and the possibility of outright.fraud. To the Sebeoks’delight, they had the opportunity
to quote the various ape researchers’comments about competing ape language projects.
Needless to say, the competition for funds amongst the various projects has led to a rich
source of mutual criticism for the Sebeoks to cite in detail.
Like scientific detectives, the Sebeoks leave no design unturned to capture the illusionary processes involved in the ape projects. If an experimenter states that the “test stimuli were randomly presented without explicitly outlining the method of random
presentation, the Sebeoks hint that the stimuli may have been correctly chosen by the
apes on the bases of predictable probabilities of occurrence. If the apes did not make
such predictions, the Sebeoks suggest that the knowledgeable experimenters did so and
communicated their expectations (via Clever Hans signals) to the ape subjects. In
criticizing the double-blind techniques employed, the authors hint that either the experimenters weren’t actually “blind” or managed to gain knowledge as the study proceeded.
The example that best illustrates the authors’ method is their description of the Gardners [1978] double-blind method with Washoe. This experiment had a deaf observer (0,)
and a regular observer (0,)who (without seeing a back-projected stimulus) both reported
Washoe’s signed description of that stimulus. The Sebeoks questioned whether (1)0,
“peeked at the stimulus to gain knowledge of Washoe’s success, (2) the deaf observer
had sufficient residual hearing to have heard some hypothetical acoustic cues from the
person running the stimulus projector, (3)0, could have signalled to 0, Washoe’s success after every trial, or most absurd of all, (4)Washoe overheard all these cuing conversations (supposedly to improve interobserver agreement) to direct her own responding.
I t is possible that such detailed suspicions and speculations are necessary to enforce
scientific rigor amongst the various language studies. However, much as the Sebeoks
recommend the application of Occam’s razor for others, they seem to neglect it
themselves by assuming that the apes ignored obvious signed or projected stimuli
before them to search for subtle body position or facial cues to direct their responding. I
suggest that Occam’s razor is a two-edged weapon that, in this case, may have inadvertently sliced its wielder.
The primary weak spot of the first chapter is the author’s neglect to define what they
are trying to prove apes don’t possess, namely a version of human language. The readers
are told to wait until the Chomsky contribution (the second to last chapter) for such discussions. I t was disappointing to find that Chomsky’s chapter never defined it either
and argued that such definitions should be left to either physiological researchers who
outline the neural structures responsible for human language capacity or linguists who
define the structural properties of grammer.
The chapters following the introduction are arranged in simple chronological order by
date of original publication. No commentary or other introduction is provided by the
editors for these chapters. The first offering, by the Kellogs, details the failures to teach
chimps an acoustical language. Two chapters by the late Eric Lennenberg follow, which
detail the structural differences in the configurations of the brains and throats of
humans and chimps that disallow chimps to use the complex sounds common to human
speech. or to interpret their environments in such a way to reflect the linguistic perspective that is also characteristically human. Two other chapters reflect alternatively
Roger Brown’s fascination with similarities between children and chimp productions,
and Bronowsky and Bellugi’s pessimism that, “we have no evidence in the mind of the
nonhuman primate, even when he is given the vocabulary ready-made” (p 113), of the
cognitions characteristic of human language behavior.
The reasons for the inclusion of some chapters are self-evident. For example, the
Kellog, Gardners, Fouts, Rumbaugh, and Terrace chapters detail their various attempts
to teach a nonacoustic symbol system to chimpanzees, either as single subjects or in
chimp-chimp combinations as in the Savage-Rumbaugh, Rumbaugh and Boysen
chapter. On the other hand, the inclusion of the three-page Healy paper is puzzling. She
tries to point out that neither Ameslan nor Premacks plastic symbols parallel thephonemic qualities of human speech. The Rumbaughs use of combinations of arbitrary
visual features to make a “symbol”in Yerkish, and the fact that their grammar required
ordered sequences of these “symbols”makes such an argument null and void. No explanation for the inclusion of this terse and dated statement was offered.
Malmi’s chapter questions one of the basic reasons for studying ape language at all. He
argues that to search for similarities (analogies) in man and ape language behavior is
meaningless, in that such similarities may have derived from vastly different evolutionary origins. Hence, the study of “ape”language would tell us nothing about the roots of
human speech. The Chomsky chapter suggests that an analog of studying human
language in nonhumans is akin to studying the process of bird flight by assessing
human jumping. While they both leave the ground, Chomsky argued, the bird manages
Close Encounters of the Primate Kind
more height and distance. To Chomsky, language is indicative of a species-specific
biological organ, like wings on birds. Another reason for studying ape language might
be to ask the nonhuman what it is like to be a nonhuman (Terrace and Bever) and avoid
the “language-ness”argument altogether. Yet, if such was the intent, then why criticize
your animal (Nim) for failing to acquire “language” when you specifically avoided
teaching him sign order? These questions never seem to be addressed to the skeptical.
The Sebeoks’ introduction took Nim’s failure as gospel without equally applying their
methodological detective skills to Terrace’s methodology. Is it possible that Nim’s
failure was the result of the same factors that the Sebeoks suggest are responsible for
the other chimps’ success?
The Terrace and Bever contribution also questions the achievements of the “languageusing” apes. They argue that solving the problem of getting food by emitting sequential
responses is not language. An implicit assumption is that children’s language behavior
is “linguistic” even in its early stages. Thus, chimpanzees score poorly by comparison.
On the other hand, neither linguists nor ape researchers have worked with children and
therefore share none of the puzzlement of how human children develop into language
users from their early communicative behavior. The point is that these writers give
children too much language credit too early. If by doing so, their aim was to bankrupt
the chimpanzee competition for language status, their success is illusionary.
Two linguists, Limber and Hill, take opposing views. Limber argues that apes have
failed to demonstrate “language”ability, while Hill seems excited at the possibility of a
paradigm switch allowing examination of the roots of human language in apes. I t certainly would have aided the reader if the editors had organized the book differently and
placed these conflicting papers adjacent to each other for contrast, or had provided introductory remarks to justify the inclusion of each selection.
Marler’s contribution highlights one of the Sebeoks’cornerstone postulates. He argues
that affective(emotional)signaling is actually on a single continuum with symbolic signaling (language),and that it may be difficult to tell the two apart. Humans certainly depend
upon nonverbal or nongrammatical signals to supply context and meaning to supplement their language behavior. In the same way, animal communication may have more
symbolic content than many assume. The Hediger chapter (and the editors) seem to have
missed Marler’s point. They find the chimpanzee a very emotional animal that relies
mostly on signals indicative of affective states. Hediger pilories the Lana project for its
impersonal, computer-controlled interactions. He virulently complains that Rumbaugh
could only have constructed such a project with a “predicted...pessimistic outcome” (p.
446) in ignorance of the chimpanzee’s social needs. At the same time, both Hediger and
the editors warn of social contact with apes as that may be the source of Clever Hans
confounding. In their introduction, the editors point out that most of the “interesting”
data from all the language projects comes from face-to-facecontact between the ape subject and human experimenter. In these situations, they suggest, Clever Hans signals
run rampant, allowing the affectively communicating chimps to be guided into performing behaviors that smack of human language. If they are correct, then by definition, no
ape language project will ever succeed to their satisfaction. I imagine that this conclusion is exactly the impression the editors wanted to bestow upon their readers.
In summary, these books present a mixed picture of one of the most controversial and
exciting areas of primate research, the language instruction of apes. The Patterson and
Linden book presents the lay reader with a detailed description of what it is like to raise
a gorilla and gives some insight into the possible cognitive capacities of this underresearched animal. The Sebeok volume examines in extensive detail, for the interested
scientist, the reports of all the ape language projects and presents the hypothesis that
most of the ape “successes”were due to Clever Hans signals. The truth must lie somewhere between these opposing, radical theses. Yet, if Sebeok convinces his audience, the
funds for replicating and improving the current batch of ape language studies will be
denied. Many issues remain to be resolved. For example, most researchers (with the exception of Dr. Patterson) take the singularly narrow comparative perspective of chimpanzee versus man. A fuller view that includes all of the great apes would enhance our
understanding of the roots of cognition and language not only in man, but amongst the
apes themselves.
Since the “language”question has captured so much attention from both the public and
science, many other areas of ape cognition and learning have been ignored. A real danger
exists that if the “language” issue is considered dead, then similar work with the great
apes that investigates related phenomena, like memory and attention, will be caught up
in the same purge. If so, many who have committed their careers not only to the ape
language question but ape cognition in general, may have to resort (as Dr. Patterson
has) to the popular press for an audience and the public for continued support. Are we
ready for such an unfortunate conclusion to these fascinating issues? I hope not.
John Neil Bohannon I11
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA 30332
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