I thought it was interesting watching the documentary about teaching Koko the gorilla to speak verses reading about 'teaching' parrots to speak. Koko imitates signs, but it is clear that she understands them. Parrots mock sounds, but there is no indication that they actually understand, and one can't carry on a conversation with them. They are kept as pets simply for amusement because they are 'human-like' in the way they can repeat sentences and appear to have human emotions. They are the brunt of numerous jokes and are considered the ultimate party trick-an animal that can curse and imitate various inanimate objects. No one can recognize the distinctions between different species of parrots; nor do they realize that the animals were taken captive and are essentially 'stolen' from their homelands. To humans, they are just birds that talk.
"It is a historical fact [that] the parrot in captivity is a different species from the parrot in the wild" (Carter 51). I think this is true of both Koko and Polly, and all other animals. Of course it wouldn't be reasonable to reintroduce Koko to a gorilla population at a zoo, she is of a different type of gorilla. She is a gorilla that speaks through sign language, and can be spoken to, and can understand, and be understood. She even communicates with Michael, the other gorilla learning under the same instruction, with sign language. They are, in fact, a different gorilla species. Not through their DNA, but through their upbringings. However, they are different in the fact that they are animals, and have no legal rights. If someone killed Koko, it would not be considered murder, even though her test scores are roughly the same as a human child of the same age. In the case of parrots, many cultures believe them to be a part of their society. "Among many indigenous peoples of South America or Australia, I would imagine it would be a monstrous thing to suggest that parrots were not human" (Carter 28). Parrots, as well as many other animals, have been a part of these cultures' history, and as a result, they respect them. The fact that we (as members of the current modernized society) do not grant any rights to animals is atrocious. Every being, whatever it may be, learned human skills or no, has a place in this incredible world that we live in. How incredible it would be without them, I'm not so sure. The image that comes to mind when I think of a world with no animals is a pretty desolate place. I am not saying that the human plan is to eliminate animals, but treating them as if they are not a vital aspect of life on Earth may just as well be saying that they are not.
The film "Koko, A Talking Gorilla," compliments the Carter reading very well, as its commentary on the potentialities for non-humans to grasp human language is very different. The parrots in the Carter reading do not understand the meaning of what they say, despite their ability to uncannily reproduce and memorize entire sentences. They offer a commentary on humans, seeing us as a linguistic being who is easily captivated by their mimetic abilities. The strength of a human/nonhuman relationship is demonstrated, as it is mentioned repeatedly that the parrots enjoy their time spent conversing with humans. It is almost as if they are studying us, recognizing the importance of our language and attempting to imitate it without understanding its deeper meaning. The case with Koko is the exact opposite. Koko is unable to verbally "speak," but it is clear that she understands a semi-advanced system of signs that correspond to the ideas behind our language. In doing so, we are offering a commentary on her and her species. A shared rationality renders her no longer a gorilla, but more like a person, a notion her trainer insists upon. A very different sort of human/nonhuman relationship develops, as we seem to be forcing her to become humanized in order to live together. Just as the parrots' words are a false sort of language, Koko becomes a false sort of human.
Jan, I'd refer to you to a book called Alex & Me by Ilene Pepperburg; it details an extensive study with an African Grey parrot that developed a mastery of English comparable if not superior to Koko's. Alex had an extensive semantic understanding of expression, formed complex compound concepts like Koko, and distinctly and easily spoke English aloud instead of using ASL. Some party trick. There's a massive body of indications of their understanding; it's an odd assertion to make. As one of the researchers in the film suggests, it seems the development of language was a critical evolutionary juncture that signals a split between "higher" and "lower" apes. A variety of animals outside of the apes employ complex communicatory systems- parrots included - but I wonder if these qualify as "language." Language as such involves conjoining and entwining distinct concepts, emotions and abstractions. Koko is clearly capable of performing these complex operations and using language as an emotive tool.I think parrots are entirely capable of communicating on this level, but it seems to me that parrots are actually more interpretive than Koko was. Alex is a phenomenal example and the African Grey is one of the most intelligent bird species, so I wouldn't expect fluent English out of a Lorakeet, but I have observed parrots expressing themselves in a highly organized manner. They seem to be prone to apprehending certain syllables or complete words spoken around them and rearranging them into new polysyllabic constructions with a constant, specific meaning. My parrot invents these sorts of bastardized words and assigns them to ideas like "take a bath" or "hungry." These associations are indicated by his reactions to satisfactions of need and, in some cases, his own emphatic demonstrations. The parrot certainly doesn't apprehend the meaning of words associatively, but it does assign meaning to sounds it concocts. Will we only recognize this to be the vestiges of language construction if its our language the parrot chooses to speak?
I think the issue of whether or not individuals like Koko or Alex truly understand or comprehend what they are being taught, and are not simply "parroting" back what their researchers are doing, is really interesting and vital to our understanding of language. It's also interesting to note that our notions of animal intelligence are affected or even determined by the degree to which they are able to understand and replicate human words and their connected meaning. In neither the parrot book nor the Koko documentary did anyone give a solid justification for attempting to teach these animals our language - why should we assume that a gorilla or a parrot is even able to think about colors abstractly, or conceptualize the notion of intentionality or preference (such as when Alex must request what food reward he would like to receive). I guess, as is often the case in text we had read, the problem is in our inability to see the world on anything but human terms. Similarly, neither the documentary nor the book discussed that human language is a social construct - so, perhaps, just as we can't teach Koko or Alex table manners, we can't fully teach them our modes of expression either.
"...the parrot is not a parrot at all: it doesn't parrot human phrases, but understands perfectly what they mean. The joke is: men speak and act thoughtlessly like parrots, but parrots posses a rational wit that is human" (Carter, 92) The particular section of Parrot in which Carter discusses the language repetition associated with these birds was particularly interesting to me. I also noticed that it connected well to the documentary on Koko. Coming from Palo Alto, CA, I've heard my fair share about the "talking" gorilla but never put much thought into what this actually meant. What struck me most about the footage of Koko "talking" was how much Penny Paterson had to "interpret"/ put words into the mouth (or hands) or the primate. She seemed to completely construct the conversations between them, giving meaning to Koko's learned hand signs. The parrot is much like the same. One of my friends from home has a parrot and since hearing her exclaim her first random phrase, I've formed quite a strange view about it and parrots in general. The section from parrot where I drew my quote is all about the common occurrence of these disparity jokes. That parrots all over recite learned words and phrases at seemingly random times and humans all over laugh. This kind of thing happened with Koko; when she created her own combinations of words (like cookie rock) and we all laughed. While I think that animals like the parrot and Koko have the ability to learn sign and verbal language, I am still unsure whether this means that we can hold meaningful conversations with them. Even if Koko could communicate what she wanted to eat or do she could not fully express all aspects of her existence. And even though we are often fooled by the reproduction of the human voice by parrots, we will never sit down with them and talk.
From watching the documentary on Koko, I really began to question the outcome of their work with her. Her humanization of the gorilla came off to me as both, an interestingly playful experiment but to what means? It felt like they were toying with her life. Koko seems smart and intuitive and that seemed to have progressed day by day and year by year but I wonder if they ever thought of the fact that if the two gorillas, Koko and Michael, had begun to talk to each other in sign language, what they would say about the humans taking care of them. Would they realize that their "necklaces" are really leashes used to restrain them? Would they notice that the animals in the books they read were behind bars and that they too were prisoners? Granted, those bars are there to keep the animals from hurting people, but would they allow Koko to walk amongst the humans without a leash if she attempted to rise against them and integrate herself into society. It reminds me of the novel Flowers for Algernon in which the main character goes under a surgery that turns his previous state of mental retardation into a state of genius. Alas, he has no freedom because he is their science experiment and would be "nothing" without them. I relate this video of Koko to The Onion video in which they parody the situation with scientists who are able to teach gorillas that someday they will die. It makes me think, sure, you can do it; but in the long run is the animal going to hurt more if their potential is reached? How far should we push the boundaries? This is the video: http://www.theonion.com/video/scientists-successfully-teach-gorilla-it-will-die,17165/
Many people have commented on the difference between parrots being able to repeat words, and Koko being able to understand the meaning behind the words she is signing for. Since Koko is able not just to repeat words, but to use the words to tell her trainer how she is doing, we all assume that she understands what it is she is saying. This is true to an extent, but one thing that must be taken into account is that language is a social construction with social implications.In the film Koko’s trainer says that at first Koko was afraid of Michael, then jealous, then she loved him. During no part of the film did we see Coco signing for love. Even if she had and it just wasn’t part of the footage, her signing to her trainer that she loves Michael, assumes that the 26 year old white protestant’s definition of love is not only a universal definition that can be applied to the word, but that that specific definition of love is what is being felt by Koko. Did Koko’s trainer just assume that since Koko and Michael ended up breeding that Koko loved him? Is it fair to state that just because an animal mates with another animal it loves the other? –The answer is indefinite, but what seems the most likely is that the trainer applied her own definition of love (influenced by her background) to these two gorillas and defined their relationship in human terms. In the film someone makes a joke stating: ‘are we making a white protestant gorilla?’ Everyone laughed at this and dismissed it, yet there is some truth to the statement, because what Koko’s trainer teaches her is right and wrong, what is punishable and how, etc is all constructed by the society in which the trainer grew up. In the end I would say there is a difference between parrots that can simply repeat a phrase and not understand it and Koko’s use words she has been taught the meaning of. Yet this problem still arises: if an animal learns how to use our language what will the meanings of the words actually have to do with what the animals are feeling, and are we social conditioning the animals to feel in the ways that society has taught us are appropriate?
Carter explores the societal and philosophical implications through many historical interpretations and uses of parrots, but in the end, I came away with several complicated ideas of what a parrot truly is. The parrot is exceptionally distinct from all other birds, due to its communicative abilities and its pronounced appearance. I found it interesting that the parrot only speaks in “captivity” (40). This suggests a kind of profoundness about the parrots’ perception of humans and maybe something about the human environment or experience. It seems logical since parrots generally mimic and imitate human language, but I would assume if they have the capacity to speak, they would also speak in the “wild.” It’s interesting to see the parallels between the widespread beliefs of parrots and other beliefs about the unknown, uncivilized, and non-empirical in 12th century European society. Europeans placed parrots in “violent categories,” (29) which further justifies their colonist-inclination to kill and destroy everything unfamiliar. I find it peculiar that Christopher Columbus declared parrots as the only kind of beast he came in contact with when first discovering the Americas (40). It is hard to decide if parrots are “talking” or “parroting.” Koko illustrates a similar case in point, however, she is genetically closer to the human than the parrot, which inevitably leads me to conclude she is more capable than a parrot to fully comprehend human language. Koko valued companionship and relationships, rather than exclusive survival needs. But I don’t think companionship is analogous to human knowledge and interpretation. Both Koko and the parrot allude to the humans’ proclivity for domination and scientific “truth.” I think the parrots’ ability to mimic only suggests a vocal capability and Koko’s basic communication abilities suggest domestication may be reaching a new level.