The Case For the Personhood of Gorillas
Patterson (Francine) & Gordon (Wendy)
Source: Cavalieri & Singer - The Great Ape Project - Equality Beyond Humanity
Paper - Abstract

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Editors’ Introduction

  1. For twenty years Francine Patterson has been communicating with Koko, a gorilla. Patterson began to study communication with Koko by means of sign language in 1972. Basing her thesis on this work, she received her doctorate in developmental psychology from Stanford University in 1979.
  2. Today she serves as President of the Gorilla Foundation, which she and her associates founded in 1976. This organisation, which serves as a trust on behalf of Koko and two other gorillas, Michael and Ndume, is currently working to establish a preserve in Hawaii where gorillas will be able to live semi-free in a protected natural environment.
  3. Wendy Gordon has worked at the Gorilla Foundation since 1990 as a research assistant, working regularly with both Koko and Michael; before that she spent four years as a zoo volunteer, educating the public about gorillas.
  4. This chapter describes some of the interaction in the ‘multi-species family’ of gorillas and the human beings who live and work with them.

Authors’ Introduction
  1. We present this individual for your consideration:
    She communicates in sign language, using a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. She also understands spoken English, and often carries on ‘bilingual’ conversations, responding in sign to questions asked in English. She is learning the letters of the alphabet, and can read some printed words, including her own name. She has achieved scores between 85 and 951 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.
  2. She demonstrates a clear self-awareness by engaging in self-directed behaviours in front of a mirror, such as making faces or examining her teeth, and by her appropriate use of self-descriptive language. She lies to avoid the consequences of her own misbehaviour, and anticipates others’ responses to her actions. She engages in imaginary' play, both alone and with others. She has produced paintings and drawings which are representational. She remembers and can talk about past events in her life. She understands and has used appropriately time-related words like ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘later’, and ‘yesterday’.
  3. She laughs at her own jokes and those of others. She cries when hurt or left alone, screams when frightened or angered. She talks about her feelings, using words like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘afraid’, ‘enjoy’, ‘eager’, ‘frustrate’, ‘mad’ and, quite frequently, ‘love’. She grieves for those she has lost - a favourite cat who has died, a friend who has gone away. She can talk about what happens when one dies, but she becomes fidgety and uncomfortable when asked to discuss her own death or the death of her companions. She displays a wonderful gentleness with kittens and other small animals. She has even expressed empathy for others seen only in pictures.
  4. Does this individual have a claim to basic moral rights? It is hard to imagine any reasonable argument that would deny her these rights based on the description above. She is self-aware, intelligent, emotional, communicative, has memories and purposes of her own, and is certainly able to suffer deeply. There is no reason to change our assessment of her moral status if I add one more piece of information: namely that she is not a member of the human species. The person I have described - and she is nothing less than a person to those who are acquainted with her - is Koko, a twenty-year-old lowland gorilla.
  5. For almost twenty years, Koko has been living and learning in a language environment that includes American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English. Koko combines her working vocabulary of over 500 signs into statements averaging three to six signs in length. Her emitted vocabulary - those signs she has used correctly on one or more occasions - is about 1,000. Her receptive vocabulary in English is several times that number of words.
  6. Koko is not alone in her linguistic accomplishments. Her multi-species ‘family’ includes Michael, an eighteen-year-old male gorilla. Although he was not introduced to sign language until the age of three and a half, he has used over 400 different signs. Both gorillas initiate the majority of their conversations with humans and combine their vocabularies in creative and original sign utterances to describe their environment, feelings, desires and even what may be their past histories. They also sign to themselves and to each other, using human language to supplement their own natural communicative gestures and vocalisations.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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