Gorilla taught to grasp its own mortality

I’ve long stated that humans are the only species in which individuals know of their own mortality, but this is no longer true.  As documented in the video below, researchers at Tulane University in Louisiana have taught a gorilla, Quigley, that it will one day die.  The results are sad and predictable, but scientifically enlightening.  They’re now extending the work to other species.

In more recent work, not reported in this video, Quigley has been reported kneeling before he goes to sleep and making gestures very similar to human genuflecting.


  1. Posted September 7, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Jerry’s trolling with the Onion!

    This is outstanding!

    • Posted September 7, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Shhh! Don’t give it away so soon!


      • Thopter
        Posted September 7, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        “Don’t give it away”? You can see their logo in the still frame of the video above.

        • Posted September 7, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, but not everybody knows that the Onion is America’s Finest News Source….


          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted September 7, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

            America’s Finest News Source? That would be Fox News, surely…

  2. Posted September 7, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you might need an additional “t” in the ultimate word in the headline. Granted, I rather prefer it as written, but that would be a different article….



    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 7, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Too late; fixed!

      • Tim Harris
        Posted September 7, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for that correction: I was having visions of the gorilla being taught some salubrious and morally inoffensive form of masturbation.

      • Jim Jones
        Posted September 8, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        Wow! My thought was, if you can teach a gorilla morality maybe there’s hope yet for lawyers!

  3. tallybee
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Hehe, good one😉

  4. eheffa
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink


    You had me for a while there.

    Excellent stuff!

    – Evan

  5. morkindie
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I learn so much about the world from the Onion. They are truly the most trustworthy news organization out there.

  6. Pete Cockerell
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Interesting results, but not quite as the cutting edge as the work being done by British researchers documented here:

    • lanceleuven
      Posted September 7, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad someone linked to this! One of my favourite NTNN clips.

      • Dominic
        Posted September 8, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

        Yes – brilliant stuff – I had forgotten that!

    • Posted September 8, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      “Wild? I was absolutely livid!”



  7. lanceleuven
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    That was brilliant. Cheers for the link.

  8. darrelle
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    “In more recent work, not reported in this video, Quigley has been reported kneeling before he goes to sleep and making gestures very similar to human genuflecting.”

    When I first read that, before watching the video, I thought “how fricking perverted of those “researchers” to attempt to convert a gorilla.

    Watching the video, and not paying attention to the logos at first, they had me going for a moment. Until they started describing the teaching methods. Then, it finally dawned on me.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 7, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Scratch “convert” and replace with “indoctrinate”.

  9. H.H.
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I chuckled at the splash graphic at appeared at one point which read “Quigley’s 2000 word vocabulary has proven insufficient to express his emptiness.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      But did you get the one about euthanasing his pet kitteh to teach him the meaning of death? Truly, the evilness of the Onion knowns no bounds.

      • suwise3
        Posted September 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

        See, this is why people don’t like atheists. AND threatening little bunny rabbits, too?

  10. bacopa
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    You trolled me.

    But I do think apes understand mortality. I was a research asstant to philosopher and Chomsky scholar Justin Leiber. His interest in Cmosky got Liber interested in ape language and he spent some time communicating with Washoe around the time her baby chimp died. Leiber though Washoe understood death.

    Justin Leiber was also the caretaker of the last live cougar mascot of the University of Houston. He said chimps are far more frightening than a cat about your own same weight.

    • Posted September 8, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink


      POI. Justin is the son of noted sf & fantasy author Fritz Leiber, Jr., and grandson of shakespearean & Hollywood actor Fritz Leiber.


  11. Posted September 7, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    “In more recent work, not reported in this video, Quigley has been reported kneeling before he goes to sleep and making gestures very similar to human genuflecting.”

    So after they taught him that one day he would die, they must have taught him that after he died he actually find that he wasn’t dead after all…. he must be praying rel hard so he would spend eternity in the fires of hell.

  12. Posted September 7, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Did they euthanize a healthy cat to test this hypothesis? Ive got a problem with that, if its the case.

  13. Posted September 7, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    oh wait, it’s a joke…and I’m an idiot! haha

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 8, 2012 at 12:03 am | Permalink

      I think it caught a lot of us other id.. err, commenters besides you 😉

  14. Cremnomaniac
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m certainly relived that the first comment revealed the joke. I wasn’t laughing. In fact, I thought it was a cruel idea that should have serious ethical questions answered before proceeding with it. Alas, I am relieved.

    What I should mention is that I live nearby the Gorilla Foundation, and if you’re not familiar with it here’s a link http://www.koko.org/foundation/

    Interesting work, but still there are ethical questions. I was recently doing some investigation of primate research in preparing to apply for a position at the Gorilla Foundation. I was conditioned to believe the video true, and the fact JC doesn’t joke around (most of the time, excluding cats).

    I hope we never see reason to do something like this. Look how screwed up we get with knowledge of mortality.

    • Posted September 7, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      You should know more about this than I, but my understanding of non-human primate research is that it is very carefully controlled, with a review process even tougher to get through than that for humans.

      And, I’d be very surprised if the other great apes didn’t have some sort of understanding of mortality already. In fact, I’d be surprised if research hasn’t already been done on the subject with one of the signing gorillas.

      I seem to recall that one of them had been violently captured as a young child, and that he (she?) related details of of the capture to the researchers. If I’m remembering right, it’d have been all but impossible for that conversation not to have included a discussion of mortality. Indeed, talking about mortality at that point would have been the only compassionate thing to do.


  15. matunos
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    By “sad and predictable” results, I assume you mean the gorilla rises up ad slays his human oppressors.

    • Posted September 7, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      We should be so lucky!

      No, I’m afraid it’s far worse than mere violent death.

      Instead, the gorilla invents a new religion. After building a substantial power base and war chest, he pushes through economic and societal “reforms” that have a devastating effect on the country and the world, resulting in global depression, widespread pollution, and war and strife on a scale not seen since the great wars of the 20th century.

      Tragic, really.



  16. Posted September 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    My bad … LOL!

  17. Posted September 7, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    There is video of Koko the gorilla’s reaction to researchers telling her that her kitten, All Ball, was dead. As far as a gorilla describing his capture, I think it was Michael, who worked with the same researchers as Koko. While the Onion piece could have been funny, I find it a little disturbing now after seeing her reaction.

  18. Posted September 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    This is both sad and funny….Cognitivie Dissonance.

  19. Ludo
    Posted September 8, 2012 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    Creation scientists will love this video: the Garden of Eden was in fact a divine laboratory for primate research! The results were “sad and predictable”, but theologically enlightening.

  20. Jake
    Posted September 8, 2012 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of the Futurama “Naturama” episode… It appears that is Koko the gorilla. TheOnion has shooped this video of her quite convincingly. The behaviour of our fellow hominoidea (the African ones anyway, not sure about the orangutan) surrounding death that is documented in the wild is most interesting.

    Elephants display cultural behaviour associated with death which suggests they have some concept (dare i say “understanding”?) of mortality.

    In the emergence of consciousness behaviours surrounding death surely mark an evolutionary stage of self awareness – types of burial and burial objects, symbolism, cave art and so on. Red ochre is strongly linked with the burial rites of our species – I’m reading Chris Stringer’s The evolution of our species right now and he suggests that red ochre had a differential symbolism for sapiens sapiens and sapiens neanderthalensis, emphasising neanderthal use of manganese as a black pigment.


    But it appears the Neanderthals also used haematite:


    Has anyone read more on this and have thoughts on it?

    Personally, investigating the fascinating mysteries of the ancient origins of life and our species is really so much more fulfilling, worthwhile and important on every level than the forfeiture of logic and reason which typifies religious dogma and belief. That includes meditations on our mortality. Don’t despair fellow atheist existentialist heathens.

  21. Posted September 8, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    this came up afterwards on my screen🙂

  22. Matt G
    Posted September 8, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Upon learning of its own mortality, the gorilla promptly converted to Christianity to cope with his newfound fear of death.

  23. Dale
    Posted September 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I saw the post yesterday and noted that the still video screen said, “Quigleys” pet cat euthanized to teach him the permanence of death” and I thought…..gross, I’m not up for seeing this.
    But it haunted me in my dreams last night. How cruel. Just now I watched the video and quickly realized it was Onion….jeez that was traumatic thinking that was true….got me!

  24. Posted September 8, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an interesting video of an elephant birthing. It’s fascinating to see the mother’s actions and emotions at the end, attending to the newborn. Did she recognize the stillness and lifelessness of death? Obviously, she could tell something was wrong.


    • l.e.k.
      Posted September 10, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      One must excercise a great deal of caution when attempting to assess ’emotion’ or the cause for actions in non-humans (well, humans too, I suppose. . .)Possibly because we need to be so aware of other people’s emotions, we are very good at ‘recognizing’ them in other animals, when they really may not be there. I’m not taking a stance one way or another, just saying that to state an animal is “obviously” feeling something or having a particular motivation is quite presumptive (also this video seems to have been shot and cut to convey a certain point. . .)

  25. Cathy
    Posted September 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    You know his video is from The Onion, don’t you? All for a laugh…

  26. Larry Cook
    Posted September 8, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, but I spotted The Onion logo fairly early on, but if I hadn’t I probably would have caught on fairly soon after anyway, because although there is very little behavioral research scientists might be involved with that would surprise me, I would have found the cruelty toward the gorilla inconsistent with most scientist’s ethical standards.
    In this video, it isn’t clear that the elephants grasp their own mortality, but they sure know the young elephant is dead and they aren’t happy about it:

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