Animal Consciousness: A Controversy
“Come here. I love you. I’m sorry. I want to go back,” were the words of Alex, an African gray parrot, when his owner and trainer left him with a vet for treatment. Alex had mastered the ability to speak, but did he truly understand the meaning of his words or was he simply repeating sounds without comprehension? Can any nonhuman animal truly understand the meaning of language? The debate over animal consciousness stems from this question. Consciousness, however, does not have a strict definition and is based on a completely subjective experience, not viewed in the third person; therefore is not easily identified. As a result, we must rely upon a host of behavioral cues to determine consciousness. We readily accept human consciousness based on an individual’s ability to understand language and show human attributes such as mourning, deceitfulness, and empathy. By these standards, any animals displaying these abilities are rightfully conscious as well. Both Kanzi the bonobo and Koko the gorilla use language to communicate needs, desires, and ultimately animal consciousness.
Through evolution, language has become a vital
part of our culture; many critics believe our ability to use language is what
distinguishes man from ape. Philosopher and linguist, Avram Noam Chomsky,
maintains that there is a qualitative difference between advanced human
language and animal communication. He points to the similarity in grammar of all
human language and suggests there is an apparatus called the Language
Acquisition Device (LAD) that is unique to humans, which prevents animals from
understanding or acquiring human language (
One of the most emphatic rebuttals to Chomsky’s thesis comes in the form of Kanzi. Kanzi is a bonobo or “pygmy chimpanzee” who is not only the first of his kind to understand language but is also the first of all great apes to have learned aspects of language naturalistically, rather than through direct training. Originally, primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh sought to teach Kanzi’s mother, Matata, human language through keyboard lexigrams. Matata showed neither progress nor interest. To Savage-Rumbaugh’s surprise Kanzi, who would accompany his mother to lexigram lessons, one day spontaneously and competently, used the lexigram system. Savage-Rumbaugh’s attention therefore shifted to Kanzi and a new training method.
teaching words and sentences to apes, Savage-Rumbaugh would give Kanzi a reason
to talk. She says Kanzi needed "a world that would foster the acquisition
of these lexical symbols […] and a greater understanding of spoken human
According to Smithsonian Magazine, November 2006, Kanzi has now learned over 348 lexigrams and understands over 3000 spoken English words. To assess Kanzi’s understanding of the symbols, Savage-Rumbaugh uses specific testing methods to avoid inadvertent cuing. For example, Kanzi listens to test question through headphones so Savage-Rumbaugh cannot hear the question nor give clues about the correct answer. Under these circumstances, Kanzi points to the correct lexigram corresponding to the given question. In other testing, Savage-Rumbaugh uses a metal welding mask to cover her facial expressions while asking Kanzi to perform unlikely tasks that demonstrate understanding. For instance, she may ask him to “put the pine needles in the refrigerator” or “carry the T.V. outdoors” (Raffaele). Nearly every time, Kanzi responds with the appropriate action.
Kanzi has demonstrated his understanding and ability to communicate on many occasions. On an outing in the woods, Kanzi touched the symbols for “marshmallow” and “fire” on his lexigram table. Given matches and marshmallows, he then snapped twigs for a fire, lit them with the matches, and toasted the marshmallows on a stick (Raffaele). Kanzi thought about roasting marshmallows and was able to use his keyboard to communicate his desire, a basic application of language that shows real comprehension.
One important goal of language acquisition is to give apes the tools to not only communicate with human handlers, but with others of the ape species as well. In an experiment, Kanzi was placed in a room and shown a jar of yogurt. He started vocalizing “yogurt” in an unknown tongue to another bonobo who then pointed to the lexigram for yogurt (Raffaele). His ability to relay information correctly to other of his species, again, illustrates an understanding of the concepts and words that Savage-Rumbaugh had been teaching.
Many observers believe that Kanzi’s accomplishments provide “solid evidence of being able to communicate simple thoughts, desires, and even intentions.” In addition, his ability to combine lexigram symbols in regular ways is a sign of a limited use of “protogrammar,” equivalent to that of a two-and-a-half-year-old human child (Page, 153). Interestingly, grammar is a major component of the argument against ape language acquisition. Kanzi’s use of grammar helps eradicate the idea that language is a purely human ability.
Like Kanzi the bonobo, Koko the gorilla was the first of her species to acquire language abilities. Through Project Koko, Dr. Francine Patterson was able to teach Koko American Sign Language, or Amslan, to communicate her needs and personality. Patterson had a dual role as scientist exploring the nature of animal language and as surrogate mother to the young Koko. Therefore, like Kanzi, Koko was taught in a nurturing environment, similar to that of a human infant. Koko lived in a trailer, had her own room, a kitchen, and a living room, and of course a set of adoring “family” members, who would aid in the project. In this setting, Patterson began to shape and mold Koko’s hands to resemble Amslan signs that would correspond with an object or idea under observation. To Patterson’s delight the young gorilla showed understanding almost immediately.
Koko would spontaneously use signs like “food”, “drink”, and “more” to convey her desires. A couple months into the program, Koko defied critics by asking questions, an ability previously thought to pertain only to humans since it requires understanding and conscious thought. She would cock her head, raise her eyebrows, and maintain eye contact while signing. Koko now communicates with more than 1,000 signs. On many occasions Koko would create her own version of Amslan signs that she was otherwise unable to form with her hands. A gorilla’s hands are not only larger and less dexterous than those of a human, but the thumb is located lower on the hand, preventing the thumb and fingers from coming together properly to form some signs. Koko was able to assign meaning to signs she created herself.
One of mankind’s
distinguishing traits is his ability to use old concepts to create or define
new concepts. In a similar way, Koko is able to combine two or more common
signs to describe a new object. When presented with a ring for the first time,
she signed “finger bracelet,” two words she had previously learned to describe
the unfamiliar ring. Another of Koko’s compound name innovations is “fruit
lollipop” to describe a frozen banana treat (
Koko’s most remarkable use of language is her ability to rhyme. When given a word in English, she can sign a different word that when spoken rhymes with the first.
In a test, toy animals were
arranged in a row in front of Koko, who was asked questions about them. When
asked, “Which animal rhymes with hat?” Koko responded, “Cat.” For “Which rhymes with big?” Koko pointed to the toy pig. On
another occasion, Koko was asked, “Can you do a rhyme?” Koko obligingly
generated the signs “hair bear” and then “all ball” (
of Koko’s greatest accomplishments was in the comprehension of spoken English.
Not only was Koko able to use sign to communicate, she surprised Patterson by
understanding human speech, which Chomsky declared to be impossible. The first
notable instance of English comprehension occurred when Koko spontaneously signed “candy” after
having heard a visitor mention the word to Patterson. Subsequently, Koko would
regularly translate English words and phrases that she heard. She also began to
answer questions. One day a visitor asked what the sign for “good” was. Before
Patterson could respond, Koko was making the sign (
order to formally check Koko’s language abilities, Patterson tested the gorilla
through double blind methods and administered several accepted human language
tests, including IQ tests. During double blind testing, Koko could see an
object but not the test administrator. In turn, the administrator could see
Koko but not the object. Koko would then be asked to name the object. The
administrator would record Koko’s responses. At the end of the test, the objects
would be revealed and Koko’s responses would be analyzed for correctness. Her
scores were usually between 90 and 100 percent. Patterson also administered
tests such as the ACLC, “Assessment of Children’s Language Comprehension,” that
examined Koko’s knowledge of vocabulary and comprehension of phrases. Again,
Koko scored impressively. Her level of comprehension is comparable to that of
handicapped children, which for a gorilla is excellent (
Both Kanzi and Koko have demonstrated their grasp of language; however, man’s ability to use language is not the only attribute that characterizes him as conscious. Another defining feature is our ability to insult, lie, have a sense of self, and show empathy.
uses language to express many of these human attributes. Her favorite way to
express anger or impatience is through insults. As Patterson put its, “in being
‘bad,’ Koko can be very, very good” (
is also known to lie. Koko’s first apparent lie involved blaming one of her
handlers, Kate, for something Koko had done. At age three, Koko was asked, “Who
broke this [toy] cat?” Koko replied, “Kate cat.” It was clear that Koko knew
she had broken the toy but chose to blame the damage on Kate. On a separate
occasion, when Koko was five, she was playing a game of chase with a handler.
In her excitement, Koko bit the handler when he caught her. “What did you do?”
Patterson demanded. “Not teeth,” was her explanation. “Koko, you lied!”
Patterson replied. “Bad again Koko bad again,” admitted Koko (
many occasions Koko has demonstrated a sense of self. She not only able to
recognize herself in a photo and put lipstick on in a mirror, but she has
opinions about herself as well. For example, a visitor stopped by to see Koko.
On meeting, the visitor pointed to Koko and them made
a small circle with her open hand in the air in front of her own face, signing,
“You’re pretty.” Koko then stroked her finger across her nose; a sign meaning
false or fake (
Most notably, Koko is able to show empathy. After overhearing her handlers discuss the 9-11 tragedy, Koko became quite anxious. Patterson asked, “Why are you upset?” Koko replied, “Feel very sorry” followed by a big audible sigh. Patterson asks, “talk about the trouble?” Koko utters, “man cut-neck, know takeoff” (The Gorilla Foundation). “Cut-neck” is Koko way of discussing death. In previous years, Koko was partnered with another signing gorilla named Michael, who had lost his parents to poachers. Michael used “cut-neck” to talk about his parents’ death. Koko has since picked up the sign.
most commonly use the “Clever Hans” phenomenon to discount animal language
acquisition. Clever Hans was a wonder horse in
These accusations, however, are incorrect. Not only do the testing methods employed by Kanzi’s trainer, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh, and Koko’s trainer, Dr. Francine Patterson, prevent cueing by the instructor, both animals have demonstrated an understanding of language far beyond simple mimicry. Savage-Rumbaugh used headphones and welding masks to hide her facial expressions and Patterson used double blind testing. In addition, Hans’s cues required tap/no tap decisions, where Kanzi and Koko’s options are hundreds of signs or thousands of sign combinations.
Another critique deals with the motor theory of speech theory. Several scientists believe that if an animal could not generate spoken words, it did not have the necessary equipment to understand them either. Both Kanzi and Koko’s accomplishments defy this theory by accurately completing tasks given to them in spoken English. Kanzi is able to follow direction such as “place the pine needles in the refrigerator” and Koko correctly signs the name of an object when verbally asked, “What is that?”
also argue that understanding human language involves more than communication.
Word order and grammar play an important role as well. In this case, Kanzi has
shown knowledge of some form of “protogrammar.” Koko, who converses in American
Sign Language, does not necessarily need to use grammar or word order. In sign
language it is much easier to represent a whole thought simultaneously, by
making more than one gesture at a time or by combining gestures. This in nature
is completely different from linear English (
Kuhn, a scientific philosopher, describes a trend in science. “When the
alternative explanation of [an] anomaly appears, science does not then change
by mass conversion. Rather, adherents of the old idea and the new idea exist
side by side for a time, until ultimately those holding the old idea die out
and are succeeded by scientists educated under the new view of things. Thus
science proceeds by revolution” (
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