Koko, the famous female gorilla, recently died at the age of 46. She became famous for being able to speak. More than famous – Koko became an international celebrity. Movie stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, William Shatner, and Robin Williams vied to be photographed with her. Rock stars like Sting sang her praises. Professors and politicians pirouetted with Koko in front of news cameras. Papers like the Washington Post regularly ran features on the gorilla who was also, more than once, the cover story for National Geographic. She starred in TV shows and documentaries. All because…well, because she could speak (via sign language), right?
Koko’s interface with the world was psychologist Francine Patterson who devoted more than 40 of her 71 years to the gorilla with whom she lived in a remote, guarded location in the Santa Cruz mountains of Northern California. Patterson tells us that she had conversations with Koko about death, about the meaning of life, and about the gorilla’s fervent desire to become a mother.
Now let me make clear that not for a moment do I doubt that the gorilla could communicate; so can bees. Karl Von Frisch, an absolutely fascinating Austrian scientist was allowed to live out World War II continuing his research in Germany in spite of a Jewish grandparent, because Hitler himself determined that Von Frisch’s research into bees was vital for the Nazi war effort. In 1973 Von Frisch won a Nobel Prize discovering how bees communicate complex details of the direction and distance to food with one another. Koko could communicate, all right.
But communicating is not the same as speaking. I think that just as one of my dogs would make his desires very clear to me, Koko communicated. But Koko could not speak. If she really could speak, she wouldn’t have been kept inaccessible in remote seclusion. She would have been giving guest lectures at every university in the world and she would have addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. (Which might well have been an upgrade on what ordinarily passes for communication in that august body.) But Koko could only communicate; she could not speak.
Did Francine Patterson project onto Koko her own deep desires for a speaking gorilla? Yes, she probably did. It would have been astonishing had she not done so. After all, she had devoted not only her entire professional career to the proposition that Koko could speak but the majority of her life. That she believed that her gorilla could speak is very understandable. What is a lot harder to understand is why so many icons of entertainment, academia, and pop culture, people usually cynical and skeptical about so much, were so gullibly eager to believe that Koko could speak.
The answer is almost self-evident. There have always been people deeply committed both emotionally and intellectually, to a Godless universe. I understand the appeal. Leaving aside for the moment, the immense challenges of living without God, I can’t deny the advantages to becoming persuaded that He doesn’t exist. All of a sudden, I assume sole mastery over my life. There is no external power to consult about fulfilling my every desire or prohibiting certain actions. I owe gratitude for my life to no one.
In order to wrap oneself around that Godless world view, one has to abandon the notion that people are unique creatures touched by the finger of God. If there is no God, then the only other way we could possibly have come into existence on this obscure little planet is through a lengthy process of unaided materialistic evolution. It must follow then that we are just another animal on the evolutionary chain. Bigger than cockroaches but smaller than whales; faster than tortoises but slower than cheetahs. Hairier than snails but less hairy than bears.
Thus, any suggestion that humans possess unique characteristics that mark us as different from all other species and all other creatures, is anathema to the secularist. Chief among these uniquely human characteristics is speech. Humans hold convocations, conferences, and conversations about camels, kangaroos and cows. But baboons, bats, and beavers have yet to be heard probing the psychology of people. For this reason, secularism has forever, desperately sought to prove that an animal can speak. Enter Koko!
Even on a subconscious level, most of us find the notion of communicating with animals almost irresistible. You don’t have to be author Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle in order to believe that the dog gazing up at you is telling you something. For me personally, it’s horses and dolphins. On the occasions when I have been eye-to-eye for several seconds with the beautiful gray Quarter Horse I was riding on a friend’s Texas ranch or with that Pacific White-sided dolphin frolicking in our bow wave in British Columbia, yes, I felt a connection. Was there some form of communication occurring? Probably yes, but we weren’t talking.
Part of being a God-focused human is not to fall for the seductive ‘human equals animal’ equation. It can be electrifying to feel that deep connection with an animal. I can barely imagine the thrill that Francine Patterson must have felt when she experienced her connection with Koko. But to retain our humanity we must remember the difference. Animals are animals. We are unique creatures touched by God.
God reminded Israel of this ever-important principle.
Listen to the Israelites complaining to Moses and Aaron:
Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert to die there,
us and our animals.
us and our animals
Moses and Aaron ask God what they should do. God responds to Moses:
Take the rod and gather the assembly you and Aaron your brother and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it will yield its water, and you shall bring out to them water from the rock then give the congregation and their animals drink.
the congregation and their animals
From the English translation it appears that in both of these cases there is no distinction between the Israelites and their animals.
In reality, the Hebrew text is crucially different.
When God speaks, in verse 8, a Hebrew word, ET את, is inserted between ‘the congregation’ and ‘their animals.’ This word does not translate to English but forms a separation between the two groups. People are NOT the same as animals.
Unfortunately, the nation of former slaves, so recently liberated, have not yet absorbed this people/animal distinction so vital to civilization’s development and the “congregation and their animals drank.” (verse 11).
And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he hit the rock twice: and much water came out and the congregation and their animals drank.
the congregation and their animals
It isn’t easy but commanding our own natures is necessary for a God-centric life. Part of that is not falling prey to the appealing notion that we are no more than instinct-driven, sophisticated animals and that animals are just like us.