I guess this post will be a bit different from what I usually post here (which is completely subject to my whims anyways, so I don't know why I'm bothering with a disclaimer). I was recently reminded (via TED talk) of Koko the gorilla. Koko is a 42 year old gorilla with a vocabulary of 1000 words in ASL, you can find out more about her here, her story is pretty cool!
It was years ago that I first learned about Koko, I think it was in a National Geographic magazine. I remember, distinctly, reading about Koko pointing out a red piece of lint on a towel, signing "red" over and over to the confusion of her human companions until they realized she was pointing to the lint. Maybe she was pulling their scrawny homo sapien legs.
Reading about Koko was one of the first times I truly experienced doubt. Now, on my journey from Evangelicism to Atheism was almost subconscious. Maybe most people don't wake up one day and think "hmmm, I guess I a gay atheist now" but to be honest, that was pretty close to my experience. A lot of it had to do with the incredibly narrow culture I grew up in, I just had to grow out of my childhood indoctrination. I'm digressing though, the point of this is that Koko caused me to experience profound doubt. Or, in less loaded terms, she caused me to reevaluate the way I saw the world and non-human animals. The reevaluation raised huge questions about Christianity's treatment of the environment and non-human animals (particularly mainstream American Christianity as it is linked to conservative denial of human impact on the planet).
And Koko scared me Because if what I saw here was true, if the so called "lower animals" were capable of human emotion, and even acquisition of language, what did that say about god? What did that say about creation? I had the profound feeling that I was no longer alone, that maybe humans aren't as special as we like to think we are.
Today I read about great apes and other self-aware highly intelligent non-human animals with voracious curiosity. Koko doesn't scare me at all (when I saw a picture of her on her 42nd birthday I felt incredibly happy for her). When exploring the world of animal cognition and the several long term studies that have been done, I feel more connected to the world. One of the major parts of my life that has changed since letting go of my old ideas is an intense connection to the world and everything in it. Many religions have a focus on the afterlife, and as a child, I spent so much time focused on what would happen after my death that I couldn't live in the present. Now I experience every moment as it happens (at least, I try to). And with that awareness and ability to be present come empathy and desire for understanding. I want to understand and respect all living things, human or otherwise.
Here is some more cool stuff because I'm a geek for animals:
A Quick Video About Alex The Parrot
Susan Savage-Rumbaugh Talks About Her Work With Bonobos
A Super Cool Study Finds That Very Young Human Infants Respond to Lemur Calls