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Jelalian: Why not give apes machine guns?

January 21, 2018 GMT

I like animals. They’re more intelligent than we give them credit for and vital to a healthy ecosystem. They’re also essential to the survival of humans.

One animal I think is especially interesting is Koko the gorilla. I think Koko is interesting because she can teach us some important lessons, even though I’m sure her ability to understand social constructs is pretty limited.

For those who may not know the intimate details of random gorillas, Koko is a female western lowland gorilla. She’s special because researchers taught her American Sign Language.

As a kid, I thought Koko was fascinating. She was born in 1971, has various pet kittens and enjoys painting.

Recently, I learned that there are some problems with the narrative of Koko’s signing.

Although the researchers who work with her claim she can understand concepts like past, present, future and death, others haven’t been able to replicate the same results. Additionally she doesn’t seem to be as consistent in her signing when observed by third parties as she is with her primary researchers and that may have to do with selective interpretation.

Also, researchers have failed to teach other apes to sign at the level that Koko’s handlers claim she’s been taught to do.

Basically, if Koko signs as well as those who make a living studying her say, then she’s still an exception to the ape rule.

As a kid, I imagined that the government could train a troop of gorillas ASL and send them off to wage literal “gorilla” warfare against enemies of the state. To my credit, the idea was more a funny idea than a serious thought.

It’s obvious why we’re not going to have apes perform basic services for humans any time, much less military procedures despite the appeal of “gorilla” warfare puns and the image of apes with AKs.

They’re not evolved enough to handle life outside either a zoo enclosure or their natural habitat. That’s just a fact.

While we should accept this as a fact, we should also accept that there is value in studying animals like Koko to learn more about her abilities and limitations because it helps us better understand the world we live in, and may give us insights into our shared genetic code.

We might find that Koko and humans share more in common than we originally thought, but that doesn’t mean we should trust her with an assault rifle.

Humans are a unique species of animal because somewhere deep down, we recognize our species’ own shortcomings and have created complex laws and moral codes to protect us from ourselves.

Sure, we could argue that certain laws solely exist to create revenue to fund government programs, and others may exist only to encroach on the freedom of civilians. But that doesn’t change the fact that whatever corner of the Earth mankind has found itself in, we always resort to making laws and codes to preserve society.

Mankind has never lived a completely laissez-faire existence. That’s not the natural order of things.

Yet many people act like government is the one thing that is standing between us and total prosperity.

On the right, you see the argument mostly when the subject of gun rights and taxes are brought up, and you see it on the left whenever people talk about immigration and abortion.

And the argument is the same. “Making X illegal won’t stop it from happening,” or “It’s a human right to X.” The arguments are always the same, and it’s exhausting.

Sure, making murder illegal will not stop all murders. Making abortion illegal will not stop all abortions. Making guns illegal will not stop all gun violence.

But that’s not really the point of passing a law any more than teaching a gorilla to sign is about sending her off to war to fight ISIS.

The point of most laws is to create a system where we have methods to exact some degree of justice on those who commit wrongs and protect the general populace from wrongdoers.

We don’t need to adopt an attitude that more government in Aspect X of life is always bad and less government is always good because almost nothing in the real world is that black and white. That’s true whether the subject is gun rights, abortion or alcohol laws. Studying the limitations of animals in and out of nature isn’t inherently good or bad, even if we never see apes come to our rescue during a terrorist attack.

Similarly, laws and government are not inherently good or bad either. I think the political world would be in a much better place if we could recognize that laws are both social constructs made by mankind and, at the same time, a natural part of biology to protect the group.

A law is just like a hammer. Use it correctly and you can build a house. Use it incorrectly and you’ll break something.

Unlike gorillas, we have a decent idea of humanity’s inherent limitations and can create legislation to correct for those shortcomings and protect both the individual and the whole.

Sure this legislation will grow and change as society grows and changes but that’s a good thing. In the end, I think it’s time we stop looking at legislation and regulation as a zero-sum game.

We may be hairless apes, but we’re still apes. That means we need to watch ourselves.

Taking an all-or-nothing approach to legislation will make us more like Harambe and less like Koko.