Existential Terror and Breakfast: 5

Epiphanies taste better with toast.

He was just trying to find something whimsical. Honestly. Malcolm had no intention of triggering another philosophical anxiety attack. The existential terror he had been experiencing every week was wearing on him. For the record, he let most of these moments pass, and did not give it another thought until another one would occur. It was his subconscious, however, that was suffering. He was depressed now, and lacked energy to do the things that he had loved. He was not yet fully conscious of what was causing it, at least, not yet.

He was really just trying to find something whimsical. Something that would lighten his mood and his day. As Malcolm Steadman sipped on his black, morning coffee he landed on a web-page about apes learning sign language. Apes and sign language! There could not be anything more pleasant and whimsical! Malcolm caught himself making an involuntary high pitched noise in glee as he clicked on the article. This, this was the distraction he needed this morning. He was wrong.

He read about Washoe’s abduction. He read about Koko’s dead kittens. He let out an involuntary yell of terror.

There was a pattern that emerged between Washoe the chimpanzee and Koko the gorilla, a pattern of pain and possible self awareness. Washoe was captured in West Africa by the United States Air Force to be used as testing for the space program in the 1960’s, but she ended up being taught sign language at the University of Reno Nevada. There she learned 350 signs, including “cry”. Koko however, was born in the San Francisco Zoo before she was loaned to Dr. Patterson who famously taught her how to sign. She was able to learn more than a thousand different signs, including “cry”. The bitterness Malcolm now tasted, was not from his coffee, but from an epiphany: Was misery a side affect of language? If so, did we spread it unintentionally to the apes?

If one is not able to describe the trauma that they felt, if one did not have a word for it, was it real? Was misery only a condition of sentient thought because it had a definition? Before these female apes were taught words like “cry” or “bad”, did they live in a blissful ignorance? What was the purpose of communicating these things to them?

Chimpanzees and gorillas don’t naturally cry. They shed no tears. It is not a natural concept for them. But Koko and Washoe “cried” when informed of tragedies.

Washoe, a previously happy and healthy chimpanzee who was possibly not self aware before hand was taught the magic of language, and for what purpose? To be miserable? Malcolm read that the first time she signed “cry” one of her handlers had told Washoe that she was absent for many weeks because her child had died. Koko signed “cry” when she was told that her pet kitten died, and again when her friend, Robin Williams committed suicide. Koko saw neither of these things happen! It was not as if Robbin Williams visited her often, did she need to know he was dead?

These scientists gifted these apes with language, they taught them the biggest cognitive breakthrough for intelligent species and with it gave them self awareness. Reportedly, Washoe went through “an identity crisis” when she met other chimpanzees because “she believed she was human”. These scientist illuminated these ape’s minds and then dumped all of their garbage and sadness into them. With this gift of knowledge came concepts like “sad”, and now these apes were terribly aware of it.

Malcolm was not aware that he had spilled his coffee on his keyboard. He would only notice it after he found that his mouth was agape for ten whole minutes and was now sore.

He was not aware of his pain until he thought of the word “sore”.

If the “ineffable” was only brought into reality after language could describe it, were the apes better off without it? Koko had known the pain of losing someone dear to her because she now knew what that meant, and no one thought about just lying to her.

Was Malcolm better off without knowledge or language? Would he have given consent to learning it if he had known what burdens it would bare?

Malcolm cleaned his keyboard and pretended that he did not see the symbolism of the tool. He resigned himself not to seek out whimsy for the rest of the week. He did not make more coffee, and he was becoming increasingly misanthropic.

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Rev. Fitz
Michael Fitzgerald (Rev. Fitz) is a writer, illustrator, and amateur Electrical Engineer who lives in Seattle.

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