Talking Gorillas and Thirsty Hebrews

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. 
(Numbers 20:4)

אנחנו ובעירנו
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.
(Numbers 20:8)

העדה ואתבעירם
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.
(Numbers 20:11)

העדה ובעירם
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.

34 thoughts on “Talking Gorillas and Thirsty Hebrews”

  1. Vallerie Fletcher

    Dear Rabbi Daniel Lapin and Mrs. Susan Lapin,
    I was so interested in your teaching on the first deaf person mentioned in the Bible in Ancient Jewish Wisdom (I LOVE that show!). You taught how his blessing changed due to his actions from the one given to him by Jacob and later the better one given to him by Moses. I will chime in and let me say that I am blessed to be a hearing child of fully Deaf parents. My late- father was a very esteemed High School teacher of both Mathematics and English, and he held a night job at our city’s major newspaper as an editor- and my mother is one of the most talented painters of oil portraits (she did a great one of [not] your “fave”, Freud, ha (complete with cigar) and has been commissioned by our state to paint one of our Governors in the past in her media of oil. They have left me a beautiful, yet FULL language of American Sign Language, which is, of course, signed and not spoken. My mother expresses that a medical issue caused her total absence of an audial nerve but G-D provided her, along with HIS CHILDREN and CREATION on earth of HUMAN BEINGS a beautiful language. My mother was very hurt by the “ape stuff”..can you imagine how belittling it is to be automatically giving credit to an ape of mastering a complete language? I know this is not the point of your coloumn but I am dancing around it. My point is that I agree with you and thank you so kindly for upholding human dignity!
    Again, Many Thanks,

    1. What a fascinating family story, Val. Your parents sound incredibly talented and I’ll take a stab that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

  2. just curious why the subject line in the email you sent that contains the ToughtTool link says “Thirsty Humans” but when I click the link and arrive to your ThoughtTool it instead uses “Thirsty Hebrews” ???

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Bob–
      There are several editorial meetings before a Thought Tool email goes out and at one point it was to be named Thirsty Hebrews and then it was decided to change it to Thirsty Humans or the other way around. Whichever, it occasionally happens that not all final decisions make it to publication resulting in what you observed.

  3. So much to know. It just makes me wonder what was going on when Adam was naming all the animals. Was Adam able to communicate with all those animals? Was Noah and his family able to communicate with the animals while in the ark? So much to know.

  4. Rabbi Lapin,
    Though I agree with your skepticism about the degree of communication which Koko could impart, two things I think are somewhat deficient in your analysis of the claims of Dr. Patterson’s work.
    First, you never outlined when communication crosses over into “speech”. I could imagine that some of the most dismally learning disabled humans would express some form of “speech”, as I could perceive in them a spark of the Divine. Then there are those who are physically hampered in communication, but have full cognizant abilities.
    Second, (and maybe the same) you never outlined the evidence that this ape’s ramblings did not represent communication. To some degree, I would wonder that a longing for non-existent offspring or discussion of things not seen (like death) would demonstrate some form of communication, even in the most elementary level. If the comprehension of Koko was so rudimentary, I would feel justified in secluding her to protect from excessive demands (like voting on a UN resolution against Israel).

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Dane–
      Not sure I entirely follow you. You claim that I did not “outline evidence that this ape’s ramblings did not represent communication.” No evidence was necessary because I stipulated from the outset that Koko did communicate just as bees and scores of other species do. What I said was that Koko does not speak.
      You also claim that I “never outlined when communication crosses over into speech.” Well, one crossover point might be when coherent words are articulated, wouldn’t you say? And as I made clear, Koko uses only hand and facial gestures. In other words, no speech, just animal communication, just as bees and dogs do. Speech involves communicating abstract ideas as opposed to merely pointing at food. There is some commendable skepticism in some scientific areas about Koko’s owner, who, it is felt, might have been projecting her own thoughts on death and motherhood onto her charge. At any rate, my main response to your points is that communication is not speech.

  5. Rabbi,

    Your article reminded me of my first time in college, after I left the Navy. I was 35. The class was PSYCH 101.

    When I walked into the lecture hall, I saw this, in huge letters, on the blackboard: “Psychology is the study of animal behavior, including human!”

    I thought, “Oh-oh. I’m in trouble!”

    I made it, because one of my Navy skills is to be able to tell people what they want to hear. Shhh! That’s a secret!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      When I last visited, Timothy
      The National Zoo in Washington DC showed that famous picture of evolutionary progress from early primates to humans in the ape section of the zoo. The only way they could have made their subversive point any more clearly was to have a couple of people in a cage along that walk. Blurring the human/animal distinction is ubiquitous in America today, sometimes by claiming animals are human and other times by claiming people are animals.

  6. Bravo, this is an all-time great. The overall teaching alone is superb, but the reference to the U.N. took it over the top. I was sitting in my local auto repair shop waiting room and drew lots of attention with my loud laugh.
    My dogs use sign language too. They poop in the yard then tell me to go clean it up…just in case they want to go in that exact spot again four hours later. Monkeys communicate in much the same way except their poop is airborne.

    Love, love, love you guys.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks so much, Louis,
      We’re happy to have brought one more laugh into the world!

  7. I seem to recall all sorts of quotes which I cannot now verify. One is to the extent that when Man worships animals, there will be human sacrifice. Another is that when Man dignifies the animals, he himself will become an animal like them. Yet another is that if you lie with dogs, you will get fleas, on and on. Poor Koko may have signified anthropomorphism at its most perilous, i.e., the investment of animals with human characteristics, including emotion and thinking. Still ‘A righteous man regardeth his beast.’ I confess never to have been a ‘cat person.’ Yet we had a dark little tortoiseshell cat with an uncanny sixth sense. The little vagabond could sense when I (I of all people!) was ill or dejected and at that moment she scratched at the door insistently to come in and snuggle briefly to comfort me. Having developed a bond with me, she was a gift from God and a real comfort, whether thinking and talking or not.

    But speaking of anthropomorphism, a local story tells of a man not far from here who slept with a less domesticated beast: his ten-foot python. I would have better sense than that. It took a vet to break it gently to this man: ‘Your pet python is preparing to eat YOU next.’ Such an unblessed banquet recently happened in Indonesia.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Yes, James,
      I recall the sad Indonesian event. It is the easiest thing to get excessively invested in an animal especially cats and dogs that do so often seem to sense your moods better than the people you live with. For a while, I was in serious peril of projecting onto our pet llama things that were not really there. An amazing creature he was, but buried in his wooly breast was not a soul struggling for human-like expression. He was just a beautiful creature that deserved the love and care our family lavished upon him.

  8. Interesting article Rabbi, thank you. I’ve often wondered what length of time was a “day” for God? Is God still on his day seven or day eight? God is rational and logical and would create a world He would not need to micro manage so elements of the theory of evolution make sense. Interesting you mentioned bees because they contradict the theory of evolution. Only one individual in a hive reproduces and the others aid her reproduction. Animals use tools (simple sticks) but they don’t make tools to trade with other animals for things they might need. Even the simplest of us are far above animals. Humans are indeed touched by the finger of God.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Interesting David,
      I hadn’t thought of that aspect of bees whose existence, in general, fascinates me.

  9. The “nachash” (serpent or shining one) speaking to the woman in the Orchard of Eden (refer. Genesis 3) is an indication by your logic, that it was not a snake, perhaps animated by Satan, no? The talking serpent view is popularized by many modern theologians and denominations, (Viz. Jubilees 3:28; 12:26; or, Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.1.4 (1.41).) Do you think that (some) animals spoke before the original sin of Adam? May they become capable of speech at some future date?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Yes, Martin,
      Ancient Jewish wisdom speaks of the Nachash, Satan and the Yetzer HaRa as all being wrapped up together in that one time appearance of a talking serpent. There is no indication of any other talking animals before or after the sin with the exception of Balaam’s donkey in the Book of Numbers. About which one of the most intriguing questions is why, when it spoke to Balaam, did he calmly answer instead of responding with a startled yell, “Okay, who was that? C’mon, really, who is there?”. But that is for another Thought Tool and another day

      1. I would very much like to hear Ancient Jewish Wosdom’s insight on Balaam’s donkey! When G-d dictated the 5 Books of Moses to Moses before the entry to the promise land, do you think that Moses was surprised at this story? I wonder if the Israelites even knew about the events of Balaam while they were happening?

        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          It’s a big topic, Mark,
          But this I will share: So important was this animal and the events in which it starred, that ancient Jewish wisdom fascinatingly informs us that this donkey and its ability to speak was specifically created just as the six days of creation were coming to an end. Thus it was all destined to occur. Wild!
          More some other time…

  10. I have started following your writing, books, and lectures recently , enjoy them thoroughly. It enhances my language , reasoning and thinking in a positive Godly way. Thank you Rabbi!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      So happy to read your reaction, Jose,
      We both find it enormously encouraging to know that we are being useful.

  11. I have often wished I could understand what my cats are thinking. They try to communicate not through sign language but body language. A paw on the cheek, a snuggling nose, kneading paws, a curled up tail accompanied by a purr. I know the paw on cheek means check my food bowl, I know the snuggling nose means pay attention to me and rub my ears, and so forth.

    But beyond that, my cats are cats – sweet, loveable, inscrutable. I love them dearly, but I know they are cats, not people. At the same time, I believe the Lord gave these precious creatures to us for a reason. Much I have learned of generosity and sacrifice and unconditional love I have been taught through caring for my pets. Cleaning up cat barf several times a week for several years until the right vet figured out that Shira was allergic to grains used in most commercial cat foods. Rushing Dori to the emergency animal hospital after she swallowed a long piece of nylon thread that had unraveled from a slip. Making sure that Dori’s cardboard scratch pads have edges she can chew on.

    When children have pets, those lessons carry forward into their lives in treating others with kindness and always having a care for the innocent and defenseless. Animals may not speak, but the L-rd sure uses them to educate.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      For sure, Joyce,
      We are big fans of children growing up around animals, for which, ideally, they assume responsibility. Ancient Jewish wisdom says that had God not given the Torah, His message to mankind through Moses on Sinai, we could have learned most of its rules from animals.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Steve,
      I really appreciate hearing when people find our work useful.
      (But no “Dr”, just plain Rabbi.)

  12. Brian F. Tucker

    Talking animals? Sure, Washington’s full of them. Too bad they are at the top of the food chain.
    Happy 4th of July,

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Now, now, Brian,
      We try to avoid cheapening ad-hominem attacks on those with whom we disagree. (I know it’s not always possible especially when the provocation can be so extreme)
      Though in this case you might have a point since so many of the objects of your derision would themselves proclaim that they are nothing more than sophisticated animals, products of Darwinian evolution. What very interesting times we occupy.

  13. I am weary of hearing the Creation vs. Evolution debate. What is completely obvious but hidden from our collective thinking is that they are both created!!!! On the Evolution side, who made the ooze? Who made the starting material? Please, there is no argument!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Bonny,
      Life is a little more complicated than that. Saying “…there is no argument” even saying it with great assurance doesn’t make the argument go away. It is not only foolish or ignorant people who adopt unaided materialistic evolution as the explanation for life. If there was indeed “no argument” there would be neither room nor reason for faith. For example, it requires no faith to say the earth is round or that earth’s gravity exerts a downward force on all objects near its surface. About those matters there is no argument. So while unaided materialistic evolution is an incorrect explanation for life, the reasons why even smart and educated people find it seductive are the reasons they fell for Koko as I explain above.

  14. I learned in graduate school one time that Koko could invent her own words. The example given was watermelon. Koko was given this fruit and called it ‘fruit candy’. An hour of a graduate seminar of psychology and language was spent on this event. We all learned that Koko had been taught the general sign for fruit. She had also been taught the sign for candy. Her creative combination of the two was seen as miraculous. However, I had the good fortune of also taking a graduate seminar in child development of language that same semester. We learned how children as young as 18 months created novel word combinations. The point is this- the possibility that a gorilla has the cognitive ability equal to a two year old child is not surprising. What is miraculous is that by three and four years old, a child’s cognitive ability is so grossly superior to that of a gorilla. THAT is the phenomenon that is worthy of hours of study and dedication to for a 40 year career.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Great hearing from you Judith (and even more wonderful to have seen you recently under such surreal circumstances)
      You make an excellent point. I’m not surprised that you encountered Koko during your extensive training in psychology.
      I gather that in a few scientific circles there was commendable skepticism about Koko.
      Warmest regards,

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