August 11, 2004

Koko's Trip to the Dentist

According to an AP item in today's (August 10th) Prince George Citizen (p.2), Koko the gorilla recently had a tooth extracted after she alerted her handlers to her problem by making the American Sign Language sign for pain and pointing to her mouth. Her handlers

quickly constructed a pain chart, offering Koko a scale from one to 10. When Koko started pointing to nine or 10 too often, a dental appointment was made.
Actually, they decided to give her a general exam while they were at it, so in addition to three dentists, they brought in an otolaryngologist, a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist, a gynecologist, two veterinarians, and three anaesthesiologists. Poor Koko didn't realize what she was getting herself into. And I wonder why they waited until she indicated that she was in extreme pain before bringing in the dentist. That doesn't seem very nice. Maybe Koko has a history of exagerating, or doesn't have a dental plan.

Unlike many animal language stories, this one seems perfectly plausible. There is plenty of evidence that Koko and other non-human primates can learn and use symbols. In many ways, the most interesting thing about this story is what it tells us about what Koko can't do, since her fans have often claimed that she exhibits human-like language. Koko wasn't able to form an ASL sentence along the lines of "my tooth hurts" - she used one ASL word, "pain", and pointed at her mouth. Nor was she able to express the degree of her pain in language. She couldn't say: "it hurts a lot". To find out how bad her pain was, her handlers had to have her point at a chart. How they taught her the meaning of the chart is itself an interesting question, and we should probably be impressed that she was able to learn how to use the chart to express the extent of her pain, if that is indeed what she did. But the linguistic point here is that, although Koko is able to use symbols, her linguistic ability is quite different from that of a human being. She has no grammatical structure and cannot form sentences. She cannot even express, using words alone, simple things like: "my tooth hurts" or "it hurts a lot", which any normal human three-year can manage quite nicely.

Posted by Bill Poser at August 11, 2004 03:07 AM