Published On: July 27, 2018

A Gorilla Teaches Us

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We live in confusing times, to put it mildly. Problems beyond our control or comprehension are presented daily. Whether we gather our information from social media or the evening TV news, the demands of trying to understand global climate change, disappearing bee populations, and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities seem overwhelming. How much energy are we expounding to grasp these issues, and to what success? Nobody has the answers.

I’m beginning to wonder if looking for answers has become today’s major preoccupation. Whether it’s an adolescent girl trying to explain why her best friend has abandoned her, or a brain chemist searching for the cause of Alzheimer’s, we’re surrounded by monumental questions.

Could it be that questions accumulate like canyon sediment over millennia? We’re facing a complex new world in addition to all the old questions we never answered. We still don’t know how the human mind works – what causes mental illness, what forces us to sleep each night. Psychologists don’t know why we dream although most mammals do.

Bigger telescopes search the skies for evidence of radio signals from light-years away. Scientists have decided that some other stars like our sun have planets orbiting them, thus there’s a statistical basis for believing in ETs. Nanotechnology and AI are offering new vistas inside the human body and brain. Climate change scenarios are spurring investments in electric cars and altering our presumptions about an oil-based economy.

Young Koko with Dr. Penny Patterson

Young Koko with Dr. Penny Patterson

Technology is changing everything – from the way we grow food to the way we listen to music and watch movies. VR headsets can alter the way we experience reality; the video game industry is bigger than the film business. The future has always been a question mark, except for gypsy fortune tellers, but it feels like a much more complicated question these days.

If each generation is better educated and smarter than the last, shouldn’t we be better at solving problems? Perhaps the incremental pace of new technology is increasing the pace of additional questions? Perhaps the more we know about the world, the more we see what we don’t know?

Some say we are entering another Dark Ages. Is it possible to have more data available to more people than at any other time in history and be clueless? Is there a tipping point for information like when we eat too much cake and ice cream at our birthday party? Is it possible to be so overwhelmed by the light of information that the light blinds us? Are we blinded by the light, as Bruce Springsteen once wrote?

Koko takes a photo of herself in a mirror

Koko takes a photo of herself in a mirror

In these times of questions without answers, we often seek someone to lead us out of this mess. The greatest human minds have all been leaders – from Einstein to Gandhi to Moses to Freud/Jung. They were teachers. They weren’t expecting disciples, nor did they appreciate the pressure of being leaders. Rather, they offered answers to previously unanswerable questions: Do you want to know how the physical universe works? It’s E = mc2. Uncertain how to escape the chains of colonialism? It’s the path of civil disobedience. Break free of slavery? Follow the guy with the robes and beard across the sea.

Unfortunately, this leads to a further question – which teacher to follow? Today, who has the answers? While there are many good candidates – everyone from aging rock stars to Bill Gates to Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize – I’m going with Koko, the gorilla.

Koko’s official name was Hanabi-ko, which is Japanese for Fireworks Child because she was born at the San Francisco Zoo on July 4, 1971. Koko was a western lowland gorilla, a critically endangered species. When Koko was a year old, a doctoral student in animal psychology at Stanford University, Penny Patterson, began studying Koko.


While it is clear from anatomy that no animals can speak words because they lack vocal chords, Dr. Patterson wondered about other forms of speech. Deaf humans had been taught to speak without sound or vocal chords by learning sign language. For the next 45 years, Penny Patterson worked with Koko, teaching the gorilla a modified form of American Sign Language.

By the age of 4, Koko had developed a vocabulary of more than 170 words and showed an ability to use language creatively. In 1975, Dr. Patterson told The New York Times: “She occasionally makes up new words [signs] which are amazingly appropriate, and she is able to string known words together in novel and meaningful constructions. Koko also has a sense of humor and plays word games.”

When the world discovered there was a “talking” gorilla in California, it wanted to learn more. Koko became a celebrity. Her photo appeared on the cover of National Geographic twice, in 1978 and 1985. She entertained celebrity visitors like Robin Williams and Fred Rogers, who featured their meeting on his TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in 1998. Koko was the subject of many documentaries about animal psychology and language acquisition. By the end of her life, her vocabulary had reached more than 2,000 words.


Dr. Patterson’s work with Koko and its significance in the study of animal research has been admired around the world. As a result, Patterson created the Gorilla Foundation in the Santa Cruz mountains, where Koko lived her entire life.

Needless to say, what Koko and Penny Patterson taught us about communication is remarkable not only for its groundbreaking nature but for the decades of work Penny and Koko devoted to language research. Koko and Penny Patterson are teachers and leaders – for their love of knowledge, amazing persistence, and humility.

Koko held the unique status of being the first non-human to communicate with humans. Pet owners believe they communicate with their pets, but Koko proved this was possible. She crossed a bridge that had never been traversed and greeted us with open arms in the same way ET would. Unlike our human fear of the unknown, Koko ventured into uncharted territory with no dread and no animosity. She was grateful for the opportunity to reach a hand across the great divide of interspecies communication, and she asked for no recognition for her unique role as the first traveler.

I commemorate Koko for being an exceptional guide to exploring the questions we face today. She was the first animal truly to understand what it means not to be human. By participating in our world without leaving hers, she explored the nature of civilization in a manner never previously accomplished. Koko died in her sleep on Tuesday, June 19, at the Gorilla Foundation. She will be missed.



B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

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