Koko and the Nature of Communication

Koko and All BallAs I was researching today’s birthday post, I came upon Louis-Claude Daquin who was born on this day in 1694. But on Wikipedia, it said that he was “a French composer of Jewish birth writing…” That stopped me right in my tracks. What, pray tell, is “Jewish birth writing”? But after a moment, I figured it out. This is the sort of thing that drives people like Lynne Truss crazy. It should have said that he was a French composer of Jewish birth comma writing in the Baroque and Galant styles. (The Galant style is that transition between Baroque and Classical that I like so much.) Now you know me: I’m no grammar bully. But this is a case where punctuation really matters. In fact, for the last hundred years or so, grammar bullies have often been the kind who hate punctuation. I feel that too much punctuation is better than too little for exactly this reason. And yes, I know I’m clueless. I know that most people wouldn’t have made the mistake of thinking that “Jewish birth writing” was something real. But there really are special musical forms for things like bar mitzvahs and (I swear I am not making this up) circumcisions.

Anyway, Daquin is quite good. Listen to this short piece:

The great writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804. In addition to all of his writing, he was also a friend of Herman Melville. At this point in my life, I have to say: I like Melville’s ideas much more, but Hawthorne was a far better writer. I think Melville was too stuck in his own head. If 500 words wasn’t enough to completely confuse the reader, he would give you 5,000 words. Melville is better in his short stories. Regardless: great writers both.

The remarkable songwriter Stephen Foster was born in 1826. He is mostly associated with the south. Yet he never lived there. He was a northern boy, born in Pennsylvania and died in New York. What’s more, he only visited the south once. And that was after having written “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Old Folks at Home.” He was only 37 when he died. He are James Taylor and Johnny Cash doing “Oh! Susanna” live:

Circus ringmaster James Anthony Bailey was born in 1847. Film producer and the last M in MGM, Louis B. Mayer was born in 1882. Cartoonist Rube Goldberg was born in 1883:

The brilliant writer Lionel Trilling was born in 1905. Ann Landers was born in 1918. Two football executives known for their “colorfulness” (read: vile personality traits) Al Davis and George Steinbrenner were born in 1929 and 1930.

Abstract expressionist (And not a bad one!) Fernand Leduc is 97 today. The beautiful Eva Marie Saint is 89 today. I loved her in On the Waterfront. The even more beautiful Gina Lollobrigida is 86. The funny and apparently not a complete prick like Mel Brooks, Neil Simon is also 86. And the wonderful Bill Withers is 75. We never miss an opportunity to listen to him:

The day, however, goes to Koko, the gorilla master of sign language, who is 42 today. There are a lot of scientists who argue that Koko isn’t really communicating; she’s just been trained to use certain signs under certain conditions. I find this more than wrongheaded; it is offensive. It goes back to the idea that somehow humans are distinctly different from other animals. I can accept that Koko may be limited in terms of abstract thought. But I have a hard time explaining her request and subsequent behavior towards her cat All Ball as anything but indicative of human-like communication. Are we, as humans so insecure that we can’t allow other animals to be closely related? It is shameful to think otherwise.

Happy birthday Koko!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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