The (Non-) Evolution of language

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"Koko, the Gorilla Who Knew Sign Language, Dies at 46", Associated Press 6/21/2018:

Koko the gorilla who mastered sign language, raised kittens and once playfully tried on the glasses of the late actor Robin Williams, has died. She was 46.

The Gorilla Foundation says the western lowland gorilla died in her sleep at the foundation's preserve in California's Santa Cruz mountains on Tuesday.

Koko's capacity for language and empathy opened the minds and hearts of millions of people, the foundation said. She appeared in many documentaries and twice in National Geographic. The gorilla's 1978 cover featured a photo that the animal had taken of herself in a mirror.

Most of the many stories about Koko's death similarly note that she "mastered sign language" or "knew sign language" — and also emphasize the inter-species empathy involved, as in Sarah Larsen's New Yorker story "Remembering Koko, a gorilla we loved".

A few of the stories are a bit more skeptical — thus the Washington Post quotes Herbert Terrace's 1980 letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books ("More on Monkey Talk"):

Nim’s signing, and that of the other signing apes as well, appears to be motivated more by a desire to obtain some object, or to engage in some activity, than a desire to exchange information for its own sake. First the ape tries to obtain what it wants directly — without signing. When reminded by its teacher that it must sign, the ape often signs until the teacher complies with its request. The critical question is whether the ape is generating sentences or simply running on with its hands until it gets what it wants.

Careful scrutiny of the ape’s utterances favor the latter interpretation.

For some examples of the general tendency to interpret Koko's conversation generously, see "Koko in the chat room", 3/2/2004, a sort of Ask Me Anything interview where Koko was invited to converse via Penny Patterson with participants in an AOL chat room. Questions were relayed in sign language by Penny Patterson, and Koko's signed responses were transcribed in real time by another friendly observer.

In the transcript below, as the contemporary report explained, "HaloMyBaby is the moderator of the chat on AOL, DrPPatrsn is Koko's friend and trainer, and LiveKOKO is Koko the gorilla."

HaloMyBaby: MInyKitty asks, Koko are you going to have a baby in the future?
LiveKOKO: Pink
DrPPatrsn: We've had earlier discussion about colors today

Or again:

HaloMyBaby: SBM87 asks, What are the names of your kittens? (and dogs?)
LiveKOKO: foot
DrPPatrsn: Foot isn't the name of your kitty
Koko, what's the name of your cat?
She just gave some vocalizations there… some soft puffing
HaloMyBaby: I heard that soft puffing!
Now shaking her head no.
Do you like to chat with other people?
That was from Rulucky!
LiveKOKO: fine nipple
DrPPatrsn: Nipple rhymes with people,
she doesn't sign people per se, she was trying to do a "sounds like…"

An alternative explanation for Koko's "fine nipple" remark is suggested by the situation discussed in Jeffrey Polsky, "5 steps to Prevent Third-Party Harassment Claims", California Employment Law, 8/1/2017:

Koko is the only western lowland gorilla to be accused of sexual harassment. In 2005, two women working for the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, CA (southwest of Redwood City) sued claiming that the president of the Foundation pressured them to expose their breasts to Koko. According to the lawsuit, which settled for undisclosed terms:

“On at least two incidents in mid-to-late June 2004, Patterson intensely pressured Keller to expose herself to Koko while they were working outside where other employees could potentially view Keller’s naked body. … On one such occasion, Patterson said, ‘Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples.'”

Both women further allege that they declined to “indulge Koko’s nipple fetish.”

Some other relevant LLOG posts:

"Signs or symbols? Words or tools?", 6/15/2004
"Groundbreaking research with credulous primates", 5/31/2007
"Next week: An experiment in primate communication", 78/31/2008
"Seidenberg on Singer and Nim", 8/27/2011

And a longer list of links in "Philosophical animals", 8/17/2011.

Let's stipulate for the sake of argument (contra Mark Seidenberg and considerable evidence) that Koko (along with many other gorillas, chimps, parrots, dogs, etc.) understands the sign/referent relationship as humans do, and uses that relationship both in perception and in production. And let's even stipulate that Koko understands and uses relations of modification and predication, not just juxtaposition.

Then it's all the more mysterious that non-human animals have not gone further down the road of developing and using symbolic communication systems among themselves. What's to stop them? Where are all the other participants in Jungle Book conversations? If language is as valuable and useful as we instinctively believe it to be, and if some species of animals are so ready to learn, why does it take thousands of hours of expert human training to get a gorilla to Koko's stage of quasi-linguistic interaction?

This is a sort of one-planet version of the Fermi paradox,  entertainingly described in Catherynne Valente's Space Opera:

Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb. Somewhere in between discovering various heretofore cripplingly socially anxious particles and transuranic elements and digging through plutonium to find the treat at the bottom of the nuclear box, he found the time to consider what would come to be known as the Fermi Paradox. If you’ve never heard this catchy little jingle before, here’s how it goes: given that there are billions of stars in the galaxy quite similar to our good old familiar standby sun, and that many of them are quite a bit further on in years than the big yellow lady, and the probability that some of these stars will have planets quite similar to our good old familiar knockabout Earth, and that such planets, if they can support life, have a high likelihood of getting around to it sooner or later, then someone out there should have sorted out interstellar travel by now, and therefore, even at the absurdly primitive crawl of early-1940s propulsion, the entire Milky Way could be colonized in only a few million years.

So where is everybody?

The premise of Valente's book is that they're Out There, everywhere, and we just didn't notice because they were occupied with other things for a while:

Life isn’t difficult, it isn’t picky, it isn’t unique, and fate doesn’t enter into the thing. Kick-starting the gas-guzzling subcompact go-cart of organic sentience is as easy as shoving it down a hill and watching the whole thing spontaneously explode. Life wants to happen. It can’t stand not happening. Evolution is ready to go at a moment’s notice, hopping from one foot to another like a kid waiting in line for a roller coaster, so excited to get on with the colored lights and the loud music and the upside-down parts, it practically pees itself before it even pays the ticket price. And that ticket price is low, low, low. U-Pick-Em inhabitable planets, a dollar a bag! Buy-one-get-one specials on attractive and/or menacing flora and fauna! Oxygen! Carbon! Water! Nitrogen! Cheap! Cheap! Cheap! And, of course, all the intelligent species you can eat. They spin up overnight, hit the midway of industrial civilization, and ride the Giant Dipper Ultra-Cyclone till they puke themselves to death or achieve escape velocity and sail their little painted plastic bobsleds out into the fathomless deep.

From our perspective, it seems obvious that Language wants to happen. It can't stand not happening. The (cultural and biological) evolution of Language is ready to go at a moment's notice, hopping from one foot to another like a kid waiting in line for a roller coaster, so excited to get on with the colored lights and the loud music and the upside-down parts, it practically pees itself before it even pays the ticket price. (We can see that eagerness revealed in the documented development of full-fledged sign languages from home sign.)

So where is everybody?

You could write a fantasy novel with the premise that they're Out There, everywhere, talking about us behind our backs in ways that we just haven't figured out how to understand yet. And many journalists seem to live in that fantasy world. But in the real world, the trans-species linguistic scene is kind of bleak and disappointing, at least if you care about things like arbitrary sign/referent connections, displaced reference, duality of patterning, creation of more complex messages by combination of simpler ones, etc.

Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to answer this question.  For now, let's honor Koko's passing by leaving things there.

Update — see also this


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 1:07 pm

    I'm not going to offer any opinion as to whether or not Koko "understood sign language", but I would challenge Herbert Terrace's first point : "Nim’s signing, and that of the other signing apes as well, appears to be motivated more by a desire to obtain some object, or to engage in some activity, than a desire to exchange information for its own sake". I cannot help but feel that primitive man's first use of language was "motivated more by a desire to obtain some object, or to engage in some activity, than a desire to exchange information for its own sake". Conversation for conversation's sake is surely something that arose long after language itself; in the beginning, the primary purpose of language was, I would suggest, far more basic — to warn, to demand, to convey the most basic emotions and needs; only when society had evolved to the point where danger, food and sex were not the sole concerns would, I believe, more nuanced use of language have started to emerge.

    [(myl) There are other ideas out there, like Robin Dunbar's Gossip, grooming, and the evolution of language; or Terrance Deacon's idea that it was all about social registration of promises about sexual exclusivity (The symbolic species). But in any case, there's a difference between scratching at the door to be let out, which is a kind of communicative act, and describing a grove of ripe figs (or a fresh elephant carcass) a few kilometers away. Pretty much all animals do things to indicate to others what they want. But the number of qualitatively distinct communicative displays never gets above a few dozen; and displaced reference is rare and specialized where it occurs.]

  2. John Roth said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    In Imprisoned in English (ch 13) Anna Wierzbicka sketches out a five stage acquisition sequence of 18 "semantic primes" that we don't share with chimpanzees. From this viewpoint, it seems overly simplistic to look for one key development that enabled language, and it seems futile to even attempt to teach a chimp "language" in a human sense.The key prime "WORDS" is in the penultimate stage. The equally key prime "PARTS," which is needed for creating complex tools, is in the prior stage.

    The Natural Semantic Metalanguage clarifies a whole lot of issues.

    [(myl) There's not "one (single) key development" that enables vision, or swimming, or flight, or sound generation, or whatever — but each of these has evolved several times. So the reason that intra-species communication about remote individuals, objects, states, and processes hasn't evolved more widely can't just be "it's complicated".]

  3. aka_darrell said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

    After about 79 years of learning American English I feel I am almost as successful as the chimp was with her sign language.

    [(myl) Koko was a gorilla, not a chimpanzee.]

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

    MYL: "[T]here's a difference between scratching at the door to be let out, which is a kind of communicative act, and describing a grove of ripe figs (or a fresh elephant carcass) a few kilometers away". Agreed. But how long did it take man to be able to describe [the location of] a grove of ripe figs (etc) some distance away ? How long did it take mankind to be able to verbally differentiate "fig" from other edible plant fruits, how long to be able to verbally differentiate edible plant fruits from inedible, and how long to be able to verbally differentiate plant fruits from generic "food". I think you would agree that "describing a grove of ripe figs (or a fresh elephant carcass) a few kilometers away" is something that did not become possible until long after human language first emerged, would you not ?

  5. Michael Watts said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 8:34 pm

    I think you would agree that "describing a grove of ripe figs (or a fresh elephant carcass) a few kilometers away" is something that did not become possible until long after human language first emerged, would you not ?

    In general? Definitely not, as describing a grove of flowering figs a few kilometers away is basically what I'd expect of bees.

  6. Back of beyond said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 8:36 pm

    For clarification, and for memory's sake, do the terms 'Koko' and 'Nim [Chimsky]' refer to two separate individuals or just one single animal?

  7. Michael Watts said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 8:44 pm

    Koko the Gorilla was a gorilla; Nim Chimpsky was a chimpanzee.

  8. Graeme said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 3:54 am

    So far we've not annihilated ourselves (Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside). Mind you it's been only 3 generations since Fermi and Friends.

    If gorillas evolved language they'd not be gorillas. If they don't, there may be no gorillas. (I always took the liberal spinning of simian-human language interaction as a way of encouraging the rest of humankind to treat more seriously the fact we are pushing our cousins to extinction).

  9. David Marjanović said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 8:42 am

    One important thing about evolution is that if something can happen, it won't necessarily happen in a billion years or five billion. If there's no selective advantage to it, it won't happen for long enough to leave any trace.

    Within speaking humankind, writing is a similar case. Practically anyone who can speak can learn to read & write. And yet, reading & writing have only been invented about five times, and that only within the last 5000 years, while there's no reason to think language in its current form is any younger than something like 100,000 years. As useful as reading & writing are in the kind of society I'm writing this in, they've been completely useless, or nearly so, in the vast majority of human history.

    [(myl) So the various explanations for the fact that language-like communication systems have not evolved more widely (whether genetically or culturally) mostly depend on an argument that they're not as useful as we think they are, at least relative to their various costs.]

  10. Marion said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 9:27 am

    As an aside, here is the start of the Daily Telegraph's report of Koko's death:
    "Koko, the western lowland gorilla who gained worldwide fame for her mastery of sign language, has died at the age of 46. […]

    Born in 1971 at San Francisco Zoo, Dr Francine “Penny” Patterson famously began teaching Koko sign language from an early age."

  11. John Shutt said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

    Evolution does not *think*. That's important because it means evolution may fail to find a possible strategy, even though that strategy would be highly successful if found, simply because the route to get there is very unlikely through moment-to-moment selfish survival decisions. Not being able to think, evolution can't *plan ahead* to develop a series of characteristics that will ignite sapience. Perhaps, accumulating the elements prerequisite to sapience doesn't produce any particular survival benefit until the whole mechanism needed for it is put together, gassed up, and you turn the key.

    So the low probability of evolving sapience may be saying something about the survival benefits along the path to sapience, rather than than about the benefits of arriving.

  12. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

    Marion: Five bucks says that sentence started out as something like "Born in 1971 at San Francisco Zoo, Koko was famously taught sign language from an early age by Dr Francine 'Penny' Patterson." But some copy editor thought it was passive and "fixed" it.

  13. Rick Rubenstein said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 6:04 pm

    The importance of nipples to the development of language cannot be oversta… no, wait, under… no, over… ah, fuck it.

  14. Ray said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 8:06 pm

    would "communication is not necessarily language, but language is definitely communication" be too muddy an explanation of what journalists don't seem to get?

  15. Doris Bass said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 11:58 pm

    Koko was a delightful and intelligent creature, and she had a wonderful relationship with Penny Patterson, but no, Koko did not know sign language. When Koko "conversed" with Patterson, Patterson carried the entire conversation, picking out Koko's relevant signs and disregarding the rest. You will never find a video in which Koko has a "conversation" with any ASL speaker other than Patterson, not even something as simple as the ASL speaker signing a sentence and Koko replying in some pidgin dialect of ASL. Any ASL speaker other than Patterson who encountered Koko would experience it as a stream of gibberish. Something like:

    "Koko, I am happy to meet you."

    "Gorilla Koko love good hurry gorilla there love."

    And, needless to say, if you simply raised a gorilla from infancy in an ASL community without explicitly and meticulously training it to sign, you wouldn't even get that–in marked contrast to every normal human infant.

    By the way, how is Koko to blame for Patterson's acts of sexual harassment???

  16. Ellen K. said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 9:41 am

    I notice the claim that Koko "mastered" sign language, and I wonder if, in addition to overestimating Koko's language abilities, it's misunderstanding sign language. The article itself says Koko "uses over 1,000 signs", which, even if true, seems to me would be well short of what it would take to say someone has "mastered" sign language.

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

    The one thing that gives me pause is the behaviour of geladas. When I see them in nature programmes, just sitting there pulling up grass and babbling away to each other, on and on all day, I can't help but wonder what they can possibly be doing if they're not talking.

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