Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Anyone here speak GSL?

WARNING: Probably not a good idea to read late at night, if you're like Liz and get easily freaked out when you're tired.

I just finished watching an hour-long documentary on Koko, that famous, signing, cat-loving gorilla (ps Netflix Instant Viewing has changed my life, and also perpetuated my insomnia). I was fairly familiar with the story already, but I learned a few things more, and now my mind is in such a state of surreal amazement that I'm almost frightened, and decided to write about it in an effort to ease my mind, share my thoughts, etc.

Most of us have heard that thing about gorillas sharing somewhere in the vicinity of 98% of their DNA with humans. However, I've also heard that humans share about 16% of their DNA with LETTUCE. So the whole DNA sharing thing doesn't particularly impress me. And even if only 2% of our DNA is different, that 2% makes for an entirely different (and very distant) species. I've always been facinated by gorillas and chimpanzees (and elephants, but that's unrelated), because of their intelligence and complex social lives, etc. etc. But until they showed me a gorilla that could compose "Hamlet," I would continue to argue that they are not so close to humans as everyone makes them out to be. Now after watching this program, I find that perhaps I have to redefine things.

Some quick doctrinal background: I will always believe and understand man to be God's crowning creation. I believe that all living and natural things are God's creations, but that humans are His actual spirit CHILDREN. That knowledge hasn't changed.

Some quick animal intelligence background: Anyone who has ever had a dog knows that many animals are sentient, emotional beings, capable of understanding, love, and even occasionally reasoning. But the line between man and animal in regards to their abilities of communication, emotional memory, and was always a wide, solid, and black one. THAT knowledge is slightly shattered, or at least dented enough to severely shake me up.

I'd forgotten how astounding it is to see Koko and the other gorillas' knowledge of sign language and their ability to communicate. For example, when the care-takers at the gorilla foundation were looking for a prospective mate for Koko, they literally held "video auditions." They showed Koko a video tape with footage of several "bachelor gorillas" around the country, and asked her what she thought of each. For some she signed things like "nice Koko-love visit" and for others, things like "bad gorilla animal no away." But when it got to the footage of a gorilla named "Endume," she signed "good heart throb Koko-love visit hurry that." I don't know about you, but I don't really see how something like that can be automatic training.

I guess there's that possibility. But it's so ridiculous to me that it seems a conspiracy theory...that the videos of Koko and Michael (another gorilla who was taught sign language at the Foundation) were faked...that they were simply trained for attention. But that really doesn't seem likely.

The most powerful story I learned of was this. Michael, a male gorilla, was brought to the foundation as a baby. He was orphaned as an infant, and he was brought to a shelter by strangers, so nothing was known about his family or how he came to be an orphan. One day, one of the trainers signed to Michael "Your mother?" And Michael signed the following:

"squash meat gorilla mouth tooth cry sharp-noise loud bad think-trouble look-face cut neck girl hole."

The trainers were disturbed to realize the possibility that Michael's mother was killed by poachers, and that he witnessed her death. The trainers know Michael to be introverted and sensitive, and "a man of few words." They said that when he does talk, it's simple, and to the point. That's pretty incredible.

While the gorillas' sign language is far from the complexity of human speech, it should be noted that American Sign Language isn't grammatical either. It's conceptual. The documentary also talked about how Koko especially will occasionally make up signs if she finds the real one too complex, or if they don't know what she's asking about. They cited the examples of "eye-hat" for "mask," "finger-bracelet" for "ring," and "scratch-comb" for "brush."

I simply cannot bring myself to believe that any of that was faked, but I find it even more difficult to wrap my mind around this idea that these animals can be so staggeringly intelligent. It's so surreal to me...I kind of feel like the rug was yanked a little under me. Not completely removed from under me, but adjusted enough to give me this jarring feeling of realizing that perhaps the way I'd thought of something my entire life was false.

I have the horrible feeling that I'm not articulating what's on my mind at ALL, and that this entry is just...me recounting the most astounding things about this documentary I watched, without making any particularly interesting observations about it.

I guess what's on my mind is this. There are certain things I KNOW. The Church is true. God exists. We are His children. Lightbulbs have to be replaced eventually. Buying organic is more expensive. English verbs are gender-neutral. The list goes on. But this interesting, though perhaps trivial, documentary I watched tonight has served as the catalyst of my realization that maybe some of the things I thought I knew are actually completely different. Which of course, makes it tempting to follow the logic of "If I was wrong about THAT, what else am I wrong about?!" I think that's the thing that's jarring me. I feel solid in my religious faith, but...what if other things are totally different? What if...I don't know...what if the tide is caused by something other than the moon? What if volcanoes go all the way to the center of the earth? What if everyone sees colors completely differently, and what I call "blue" you see as what I call "yellow"? I feel so...un-anchored thinking about these kinds of things...

GAH. This kind of thinking at 2 a.m. will just make you slightly paranoid. I'd better read scriptures or something--grab ahold of something solid and sure--and try to get my brain to slow down enough to sleep.

That's actually probably the root of my problem. The fact that it's 2 a.m.

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