The BBC documentary, Koko, The Gorilla Who Talks, is now available on Netflix.
It's a thought provoking film. Start with the title. It doesn't say "the gorilla that talks." No, it refers to Koko, the gorilla with a sign language vocabulary of hundreds of words as a "who."
This idea that a gorilla could be a "who," not an it, ie., a person, is extremely odd to many in the west, who embrace what Derek Jensen describes as "the myth of human supremacy." Aboriginal/indigenous peoples tend to be far more inclusive. They treat nature as "we"-- trees, birds, Salmon, bears, wolves...
But the west, in a form of grandiosity-- call it insanity, delusion, species narcissism-- over the past 800 or so years, maybe longer, maybe even since the beginning of farming and the domestication of animals, has divorced itself from nature and from the idea that other beings could have intelligence of their own kind.
Koko stands out because she can communicate using sign language. Over the years she's developed additional skills to use tools, drink from a glass, use a pen...
But none of those things are prerequisite for another being-- we call them animals-- to possess intelligence. In addition to primates, ctopi and Cetaceans (Dolphins and porpoises) are also extremely intelligent. So are horses.
In his book The Myth of Human Supremacy, Derek Jensen asks the question, "Who invented penicillin?" In my interview with Jensen, I asked him to go into the details. He replied,
"We always think of Alexander Fleming. He didn't really invent Penicillin. Okay, it was invented by a guy, 30 years earlier who wrote to the Pasteur institute and never get credit. But no, Arab stable boys would keep saddles in dark so they would get moldy because horse's saddle sores would heal better. In the Crusades, soldiers put moldy bread on wounds."
Then he went on to identify the real inventor of penicillin:
"But the actual inventors of penicillin, are the molds, which invented it to prevent bacteria from eating their food.
If humans create something it's valuable. If nature creates something, it's not considered valuable or art. We never think of bird or frog song or the colors of the fall.
We presume that there is no function, art, creativity in nature."
And Jensen points out, "How does this relate to this culture killing the planet. If you can come to believe that nature serves no purpose-- you can kill."
I said to Jensen, "You say, in the book, "The point of a supremacist mindset is to facilitate-- emotionally, intellectually, theologically, physically-- the exploitation of others." Sounds like the definition of a narcissist or psychopath. Talk about these."
Jensen replied "You can't more narcissistic, suicidal and psychopathic than killing a planet." He referred to a serial killer in New Mexico who would kidnap women, torture and kill them. He looked at the women as tissue paper to use and throw away. "How different is that from how this culture approaches salmon, cod, wolves or forests."
Back in the mid nineties, Daniel Quinn wrote a best-selling novel, Ishmael, which featured an intelligent gorilla who became a young man's teacher-- teaching him about the "takers" who justified their destruction of the earth and killing of animals because they were superior.
Which takes us back to Koko. A few decades ago, a scientist attempted to challenge the intelligence and learning of Koko. Maybe he thought it was a scientific statement. But really, it was a political act.
Nicholas Taleb, in his book, Black Swan, points out that it only takes one black swan to prove they exist. Disproving the "Who-ness" of Koko was a defense of the myth of human supremacy, which is used to justify humans being the "takers" Daniel Quinn has described.
Taleb says, "You need a story to displace a story." Along the same lines, R. Buckminster Fuller says, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
Koko offers us a handle to grab to start spinning that alternate story, to create that new model. But of course, indigenous peoples already have that story, that alternate model. The myth of human supremacy is an incredibly Top Down way of seeing and functioning.
We have so much to learn from other intelligent species and from learning how to intelligently and compassionately interact in Bottom Up ways with them. Perhaps that is the greatest gift that Penny Patterson, Koko's trainer, mother and friend has given us.
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