Gorilla Humor: The Hidden Power of a Good Joke
March 24, 2012 6 Comments
I’ve spend much of the last week compiling the most critical excerpts from the animal welfare/animal rights volumes I’ve been reading. What strikes me about many of my chosen excerpts is that they’re what a skeptic would quickly dismiss as anecdotal. But what’s wrong with a relevant anecdote? Too often the scientific rebuke that a particular piece of evidence is “merely anecdotal” serves as a weapon to reinforce the status quo. This is regrettable because, especially when it comes to animal behavior, anecdotes combined with common sense can offer privileged access to a deeper understanding of animal thought and behavior.
Take the case of a gorilla named Koko, recounted in Steven Wise’s Drawing the Line. An anthropologist asked Koko’s handler to point to her own nose, ears, mouth, chin, eyes, and forehead and ask Koko to imitate her. Koko complied without hesitation or confusion. When the anthropologist came back several weeks later to repeat the experiment and film the results, Koko became mischievous. She studied his handler’s gesture carefully and promptly botched the imitation. For example, when the handler pointed to her nose, Koko pointed to her chin. She repeatedly made these “errors.” When her handler became frustrated and signed “BAD GORILLA,” Koko responded by signing back “FUNNY GORILLA” and laughed.
The possibility that a gorilla not only grasps but can execute a joke bears heavily on how we evaluate her intellectual capacity. The problem, however, is that from the perspective of conventional science it’s impossible to empirically prove that Koko was in fact being funny. “There is,” writes Wise, “no penetrating the thicket of gorillas’ intentions.” Neither, for that matter, is it really possible to understand, or empirically confirm, the deeper impulses driving human motivation. The inner working of the mind do not lend themselves to concrete conclusions. We thus have no choice but to derive meaning from logical assumptions about clearly expressed intentions. What else can we do? Plus, how many jokes would a gorilla have to make before skeptics would be convinced that this is in fact a laughing matter?
If we cannot draw conclusions from anecdotes, we’ll never advance our knowledge about the minds of the animals that amaze so many of us.