Friday, February 17, 2017

Primate Saturday: Cocoa with Koko

For over almost half a century, Francine "Penny" Patterson has claimed that her surrogate daughter, a female western lowland gorilla named Koko, can use sign language productively. Following what started as her own PhD project, Koko has gained international publicity due to both the public's fascination with a domesticated gorilla that clearly interacts (but not necessarily linguistically communicates) with humans, and also due (largely) to what most scientists consider to be over-inflated claims by Patterson regarding Koko's sign language usage.
To be sure, no one has ever claimed that Koko cannot use signs to signal certain elemental concepts that are interpretable by humans. For instance, gorillas have long been known to be capable of complicated social structures, intricate inter-personal relationships and of a wide range of emotions. Given this, Koko's ability to use the sign for "sad" or "cry" on being shown pictures that would qualify as such, after extensive familiarization with the concerned sign-reference correlations, is hardly news to any primatologist. Patterson's claims, however, go far beyond this ability (often also observed in bonobos and chimpanzees) -- according to Patterson, Koko instinctively uses signs to communicate her feelings and thoughts. The ability to use discrete symbols, and to recursively combine them to create ever more complicated structures with semantic content, is a hallmark of the human species. And while Patterson does not, in fact, claim that Koko is quite that adept, her claims of Koko having self-consciousness, or being able to recognize herself in her reflections/creating a self-identity, and using sign-language to "think" about her world has consistently raised eyebrows in the scientific community. Several scientists have pointed out that Patterson is falling victim to the one cardinal sin in ethology -- anthropomorphism. She has been compared to an over-zealous mother who is infatuated with her very clever baby, and is thus ascribing to the behaviours of the baby concepts that are, developmentally, beyond the baby's ability. According to most, Patterson's interpretations of Koko's behaviors vanish when seen through more objective eyes.
While Patterson's claims about Koko's abilities are very likely to be overreaching, she has nonetheless to be commended for spending her entire life caring for the gorilla she adopted. Certainly this deserves more praise than Project Nim, wherein the researcher who adopted a chimpanzee, named him Nim Chimspky (after the polymath linguist Noam Chomsky), and tried to teach Nim sign language, would eventually give him up for a life in captivity when the research didn't go as expected. Nim, having been raised in a human family, was unable to adapt to wilderness later on. He lived out the remainder of his life, following the sad (but predictable) demise of Project Nim, being subjected to various forms of experimental indignities, including being used for product testing -- a confused, troubled and perpetually depressed chimpanzee, Nim died in his cage, forgotten and abandoned by the world that had moved on to the next circus trick.
There are important lessons to be learned from both Project Nim and Koko. The positive lesson is one of hope; we are only gradiently removed from our closest cousins with whom we share a majority of our genetic materials, who only lack may be one or two of our qualities, but are nonetheless very as capable of appreciating us as we them. The other lesson, though, is one of a more cautionary note; just because our cousins in the ape world lack our kind of language neither makes them lacking in consciousness, nor does it do to invade their world and try to teach them neat circus tricks in vain and misguided attempts to improve on evolution.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Slow, dull, monotonous, persistent
and unforgiving;
Every beat renews
the ever darkening constancy
of a reluctant pessimist.

An exercise in futility;
rusting arteries can only
blacken young blood,
with each new beat.

Never learning.

Mockingbirds do not return
to leafless branches
and play Muse
to the poets of eternal Fall.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Primate Saturday: Ham in Space

Before there was Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin or Carl Sagan, there were the forgotten apes we sent to space. Whether such acts reflect human anthropocentrism, or whether they were worthwhile sacrifices for furthering our understanding of the cosmos, is an open debate. No one, of course, in their right minds would claim that we should not have studied the space. The survival of our species, and since we alone are capable of Scientific logic probably the survival of other earthlings, depends on our understanding of deep space. So, perhaps, instead of arguing against the space-faring chimpanzees, we should look back on their experiences, and remember the sacrifices they made (involuntary as they were) to further our understanding of the cosmic ocean. So, in remembering the most humane of the astronomers, I dub thee Sagan's Primates.

The Story of Ham

Friday, February 3, 2017

In All Fairness

Forked-tongued, mousse haired, black tied 
whistle hawkish tunes,
circling the bodies of Syrian children
washed up on Bodrum shores,
singing war songs,
beating battle drums.

Lying, stealing, pillaging,
boundary-challenged savants,
talk of walls and borders.

And from the heights of Standing Rock,
drenched in the blood and tears
of an once proud People,
Fair Evil eyes the Earth;
looking, searching, lusting
for another Wounded Knee.

Primate Saturday: Mutual Aid Apes

Bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA. Physically, they resemble chimpanzees. But something remarkable sets them apart from their primate cousins, making them an altogether different animal. Bonobos live in almost complete absence of violence; work cooperatively toward shared goals; foster a society that values equality; and engage in prolific casual sex. Could these gentle, promiscuous creatures hold the key to a world without war? Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake, discusses what we might learn from our evolutionary relatives with anthropologist Brian Hare and NPR RadioLab's Jad Abumrad.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Primate Saturday: DIY Orangutans

This is going to be a new series in the spirit of understanding the evolution of beings that would ultimately result in higher cognition, the highest being the human ability for logical natural language (my personal area of research). We are all, of course, descendants from the same single source, but even though we share much of our genetic materials with the higher apes -- bonobos, chimpanzees etc. -- we are still separated by a very tiny subset of cognitive abilities when compared to the higher primates. These abilities, often abstract computational in nature, must nontheless be explained as biological endowments, which in turn require an evolutionary (thought not necessarily adaptationist) explanation.

This series, though, is not so much meant to be an in depth elaboration of the concerned science as it is meant to be food for thought... How did we get here, with our abilities to do mathematics and write poetry, and engage in all sorts of abstractions, starting with the simple, yet revolutionary, ability to imitate and use tools?
                                     David Attenborough: BBC Earth's Amazing DIY Orangutans