Koko the Gorilla

Tonight we were talking about the famous gorilla named Koko. I didn’t realize that she knows more than 1000 signs in sign language, and 2000 words in English.

Her intelligence is such that she even knows when her birthday is coming up and lets her caregiver know. She gets sad and can express that as well as her having all sorts of human-like feelings and qualities.

My question is, how can our faith teach that only humans have an intellect when animals clearly do, also?

Or am I misunderstanding the term “intellect?”

“Patterson claims that Koko’s use of signs and her actions, which are consistent with her use of signs, indicate she has mastered the use of sign language.[2] Other researchers argue that she does not understand the meaning behind what she is doing and learns to complete the signs simply because the researchers reward her for doing so (indicating that her actions are the product of operant conditioning).[12][13] Another concern that has been raised about Koko’s ability to express coherent thoughts through signs is that interpretation of the gorilla’s conversation is left to the handler, who may see improbable concatenations of signs as meaningful. For example, when Koko signs “sad” there is no way to tell whether she means it with the connotation of “How sad.” or if she has no syntax. Following Patterson’s initial publications in 1978, a series of critical evaluations of her reports of signing behavior in great apes argued that video evidence suggested that Koko was simply being prompted by their trainers’ unconscious cues to display specific signs, in what is commonly called the Clever Hans effect.[14][15][16][17][18][19] Such debate requires careful consideration of what it means to “learn” or “use” a language (see Animal language for further discussion).”

Yes, intellect and will are the attributes of the spiritual soul, which only humans have. Animals have a material soul. They are not made in the image and likeness of God.

Some animals do have an intelligence, can learn simple commands. But animals do not have a spiritual soul. They have instinct, not will. Their intelligence is not that of a human. Not rational.

I thought intellect is synonymous with intelligence.

This was really interesting,. Thanks for posting this.

Science is uncovering ever more new and interesting findings about non-human species and it would seem that much of lay mis-understanding of the differences between human and non-human species are driven by prejudice and speciscism without much interaction with the species concerned. The following is not an exhaustive list of the differences/similarities but questions raised in my mind for some time now along similar lines to the OP which I would like to see a discussion. Please ensure that the points you raise has a logical basis back to empirically observed and documented studies of differences/similarities between human and non-human species, not bald statements which only serve to highlight one’s non-relationship with scientific facts.

(1) Humans are not the only species with theory of mind: so do the other great apes and dolphins etc. Together with the theory of mind would be the ability of deceive and individual apes have been observed to do so. Would this therefore mean the ability to sin? And if so would there be a requirement to confess sins and seek redemption?

(2) Scientists have placed chimpanzees as generally capable of achieving the intellectual age of 6 (of a human child). Many of those who have interacted with chimpanzees would think of a higher equivalent age than 6. If we send our 6-year-olds to Sunday School, would we need to send chimpanzees to Sunday School, assuming they have mastered human language communication (e.g…, in a similar fashion to Koko)? After such suitable instructions, would we be required to baptise such chimpanzees and then to First Holy Communion? If it can be proven that such species are incapable of reaching the intellectual age for confirmation, would this fact have a bearing on the decision to baptise the individual? If so, would this mean that baptism in the Oriental Rite is possible (as confirmation & Holy Communion follows immediately from baptism) but not in the Latin Rite?

(3) Recent findings in the Rising Star cave in South Africa indicate a new pre-human species of Homo Naledi 1-2million years old, which seem to be burying their dead. More incontrovertibly, homo neanderthals 24-600,000 years ago, are known to bury their dead, often with valued objects. This indicate a capacity for understanding of the afterlife. Would such capacity mean that evangelisation is not limited to our species? If so, would it mean that the fullness of the catechism apply before baptism can be administered or is there a requirement to assess how far the capability of understanding by the other species extend and only that part of the catechism and canon law that the other species is capable of understanding applies?

(4) A fundamental part of being human involves a certain level of self awareness, including the Theory of Mind. Would the criteria of having a spirit (as opposed to a soul) have a similar criteria since it was originally deemed that only a human can have a spirit. Yet, elements of being human and self-awareness is more a continuous spectrum rather than a discrete definition. So, would an individual or a species need to reach a particular tipping point at which it will then obtain a full spirit identical to one held by a member of the human species or does it have a mix of spirit and soul characteristics in line with its level of self-awareness/etc. If so, would this mean that different species could have different mix of soul-spirit? Also, if so, would this mean different human individuals have similarly different mix of soul-spirit?

My intention here is to avoid a dogmatic discussion of the philosophy of souls and spirits divorced from recent scientific findings. I would like the answer to be fully informed by scientific understanding.

Hi, Faith!

…it’s called anthropomorphism; we give animals the credit of having human intellect because we long for that “planet of the apes” moment…

…a household pet may mimic human speech, but it is doubtful that the concept “I love you” (as depicted in commercials and tv programs) is actually understood by the critters… not even all humans understand it!

Yes, it is true that animals are capable of things that are even beyond human abilities (hearing, sight, smelling…), and there are things that could be attributed to a higher intelligence/ability than humans’ (the ability of a companion animal to detect an epileptic attack even before it fully surfaces…) but that only means that animals have a built-in ability that humans do not have (such as sharks smelling blood or detecting motion in water and bats’ radar system…). Yet, none of them plans for tomorrow (with the exception of those built-ins), they are not aware of their mortality nor of the consequences of their actions (as long-loved pets turn on their “humans”).

I liken them to toddlers that have not yet pieced together that sound travels and they marvel at the adult’s abilities to know that they’re up to no good as they go into their “silent” mode or brake things and their parents/caregivers rush them… their expressions are so comical… :juggle::whistle::shrug::bighanky::hug3: …yep! …just like the critters, toddlers learn to manipulate our feelings!

Maran atha!


Hi, Jim!

…yeah, I would love to see you try to dunk a silver-back gorilla while explaining that you’re trying to Baptize it so that it can go to Heaven!

Maran atha!


I wouldn’t do that. I would have just done the RCIA program, then advise the priests whether he needs to interview the candidates to satisfy himself for borderline cases. Then, I have a minor role on Easter night.

The baptism itself, I will just advise the priest that he will need to deal with it in a similar fashion as if he had someone extremely obese for baptism. Maybe get two big sized fellas or two already baptised gorillas to hold the candidate down.

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