Week 9 Response: Be Like You

Apes may be considered as just the ancestors of humans and often are regarded by their primal and animal behavior. “Monkey” is used as a derogatory term for humans who behave below the intellectual or social norm. Despite these prejudices and dissociation with primates, humans continue to research and study apes in a variety of methods and media through teaching, communicating, and socializing with them. Is this just another attempt in which inter-species relationships become models of anthropomorphism as we continue to relate apes to man?

When people are so often compared to apes, it’s not common to miss the intellectual potential apes. Similar to the time in which human babies grow the most cognitively, gorillas and other apes are capable in developing fluently in human communication. Dr. Penny Patterson leads Koko, a gorilla, in Project Koko by teaching her human language. Koko proved than gorillas could also learn language through gestures and combinations of signs, and was thus able to learn American Sign Language.  This began with teaching only the most basic of signs: FOOD, DRINK, and MORE. In ten years, she would learn 1100 different signs and eventually develop her own sign vocabulary including emotional words: SAD, LOVE, GOOD, and SORRY.

Despite learning more and more symbols, there would also be times when she her correspondent failed to understand her own communication, thus making her frustrated. At the same time, gorilla Koko was able to learn and understand spoken English as it was taught simultaneously with signing. Koko invented her own signs when she needed to refer to something not already within her vocabulary by compounding different terms to create what she meant: SCRATCH and COMB was meant to convey BRUSH. And like humans, Koko demonstrated clearly conveyed emotions through her sign language such as in the case of losing her first kitten or when she saw the sad part of a familiar movie. Through all these varying forms of media, apes show a vast potential for intellectual communication with humans.

Rachel Mayeri, an experimental videographer, engages and researches apes in her main project Primate Cinema. One of her works included in this project is the screening of video to primates in order to study their response to cinema, where they are specifically its audience. Titled “Movies for Monkeys,” Mayeri explores the apes’ curiosity and their different reactions. With this kind of media, humans establish their cross-species interaction with primates by making them do the things we do.

Though the purpose of this piece  as well as Project Koko may be for scientific research or art, this also raises an ethical question regarding the relationship between man and ape: Should apes become more like humans? Humans regard themselves as the intellectually superior species, and much like colonialism we put our own standards upon others whom they regard as inferior. Are these kinds of projects truth to humans imposing dominance, or rather do they bring to light that how apes behave, think, and feel reveals their own intellectual capacity beyond the stereotypical definition they have?

Sources:  http://www.koko.org/sign-language, http://rachelmayeri.com/blog/2011/01/06/saimiri-cinema/

-Addison Bi

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