The world’s most famous gorilla is showing signs of early speech

The gorillas are gabbing.
The gorillas are gabbing.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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Koko, a 44-year-old gorilla famous for her ability to communicate with keepers using sign language, is now showing signs of early speech. “Koko has developed vocal and breathing behaviors associated with the ability to talk, which were previously thought to be impossible in her species,” The Daily Mail reports. The new development could further blur the line between what distinguishes humans from some of our more hirsute cousins.

(Insert obligatory Rise of the Planet of the Apes joke here.)

Primatologists have long believed (paywall) in a limited “vocal repertoire” for each species of ape—rendering them unable to learn new sounds beyond a certain range. This theory suggests that development of verbal language is a uniquely human characteristic. Koko is perhaps on the verge of shattering scientific notion.

Marcus Perlman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been working at the Gorilla Foundation, which houses Koko, since 2011. “I went there with the idea of studying Koko’s gestures, but as I got into watching videos of her, I saw her performing all these amazing vocal behaviors,” he told The Daily Mail. These were learned behaviors, and not part of a “typical gorilla repertoire,” Perlman and fellow researchers found.

Though Koko’s command of sign language is indeed extraordinary, Perlman believes she is “no more gifted than other gorillas … The difference is just her environmental circumstances. You obviously don’t see things like this in wild populations.”

“She shows the potential under the right environmental conditions for apes to develop quite a bit of flexible control over their vocal tract,” Perlman explained. “It’s not as fine as human control, but it is certainly control.”

Some might wonder what weight, if any, this development might lend to the ape-personhood movement—a movement in the US to have great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos) recognized as “persons” and thus deserving of protections under higher law. (The implications of such a legal change would make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out medical or pharmacological testing on apes of any kind.)

But surely if the ability to speak is any indicator of personhood, then Koko is already there—she has an expansive command of modified American Sign Language (ASL), and knows more than 1,000 signs in “Gorilla Sign Language” (GSL). Though she does not yet use syntax or grammar, she is able to formulate new phrases from existing words: Her primary caretaker, Francine Patterson, claims Koko combined the signs for “bracelet” and “finger” to refer to a ring.

So, while the prospect of real, live, talking apes is an exciting one, it’s important to remember that apes are already able communicators. And if personhood depends, as some opponents have stipulated, on a capacity to think, emote, and express oneself through some form of verbal or gestural code, then apes should already classifiably be “persons”—speaking, or otherwise.