Gorilla Humor: The Hidden Power of a Good Joke

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.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

6 Responses to Gorilla Humor: The Hidden Power of a Good Joke

  1. Rebecca says:

    I remember my nephew, who was about 2 years old at the time, first grasp the concept of humor and laugh out loud. My dog often makes me chase her around the yard, playing “you can’t catch me.” Goats act as if the whole world is a joke. There is no doubt in my mind that animals display a sense of humor. Anyone who actually spends time with them, observing (and not tormenting them) could see it too…if they wished. Thanks for the story of Koko – you made my day!

  2. Anecdotes are powerful. One of my favorite quotes by Marc Bekoff (biologist, ethologist, animal activist) is: “The plural of anecdote is data.”
    I agree with you that for studying animals qualitative research methodology makes more sense than quantitative.

  3. CQ says:

    Yes, Rebecca, not tormenting them AND not confining them in small, unnatural spaces.

    If anyone would like to see a photo of Koko tendering embracing a tiny kitten, go to http://www.CreatureQuotes.com, click on Chapter 8, scroll to page 37. The photo illustrates the quote on the same page. There’s info on the photo under the credits on page 46.

    critterconsciousness, I dig that user name! Thanks so much for sharing Marc’s words of wisdom: “The plural of anecdote is data.” I love that!

    I would add that I think people put credence in anecdotes UNTIL one comes along that refutes a strongly held opinion or the status quo a.k.a. conventional wisdom. At that point, the ammo of fear and skepticism and hubris comes out, and the anecdotal conditions are called “chance” or “unscientific” or “unsupportable.”

    It’s good, James, that you are writing about this subject. The false charge of anthropomorphism must be debunked every chance we get. Truth is naturally inherent in and expressed by each created being. So is Mind. And Life. And Spirit. And most definitely Love. The differences are in degree (quantity), not in quality and not in origin.

  4. Provoked says:

    “FUNNY GORILLA” I love that!

    I have romantic notions about the “purpose” of other animals… I truly believe in some cosmic sense they are here to teach us how to live – With them, with ourselves and on this beautiful planet. There’s a wealth beyond measure to be had in understanding and appreciating them for exactly who they are – outside of our control and domination. We will fail miserably as a species if we don’t acknowledge their fundamental right to exist for their own sake. They are us…

    I hope this upcoming presentation of Speciesism helps forge the way to justice and kindness – with the urgency that “the biggest problem in the world” demands:

  5. I have for some time suspected that skeptics of animal consciousness do not truly understand the concept of homology… even when they should be able to. Since the neural, biochemical and anatomical structures of the brain and nervous system are ancestral to nearly all vertebrates, it’s perfectly plausible to assume that they do for animals what they do for us. The burden of proof ought to be placed with those who claim otherwise, but by and large, it isn’t. This denial of animal minds is an ideological relic of medieval creationism, not an empirically-derived conclusion. I retain hope that the growing preponderance of the the evidence from ethology and neurobiology alike will soon expose this naked emperor.

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