Did A Gorilla Really Pass The Same Test Trump Took?

The Gorilla Foundation / Twitter / IFLScience

As people have pointed out all over the Internet, US President Donald Trump has now spent longer bragging about passing an assessment for markers of cognitive decline than former President Barack Obama has spent crowing about bagging an actual Nobel Peace Prize.


To be fair, is winning a Nobel Prize really as impressive as remembering five words for a bit?

Trump has kept the story in the news cycle for a few weeks now with repeated anecdotes about how surprised his doctor was that he passed the Alzheimer's test, and laying down several challenges for Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden to take the same test. It's a story too bizarre for the Internet to leave alone as well. Recently one claim about the test particularly has gone viral over the last week: That a gorilla took and passed the same test Trump did.


Which of course led to people demanding that Koko the gorilla be made President posthaste.


For those that don't know the story of Koko the gorilla, she was the subject of a strange experiment. Back in the 1970s, Stanford animal psychologist Dr Francine "Penny" Patterson had an idea: She would see if she could teach an ape to talk. In 1971, she got her chance when a western lowland gorilla was born at San Francisco Zoo, before being rejected by her mother.

Patterson took the ape under her care for the next 46 years, teaching her "Gorilla Sign Language" (GSL). Patterson reported that she learned over 1,000 signs and understood a further 2,000 English words. 

But is the claim Koko took the cognitive test Trump is so proud of passing actually true? Well, as you really should have guessed by it being a claim in a viral tweet, no. The test Trump took was the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a screening tool used for detecting mild cognitive impairment, particularly in a clinical setting, to help diagnose early Alzheimer's or dementia. You can take a closer look at the test here. Though Koko was given a lot of tests during her lifetime, this would have been an odd exam to administer her, given that it is designed to assess cognitive decline in humans. 

Could she have beaten the test? Well, sorry to disappoint anyone who was looking forward to a gorilla interim president: Koko had the vocabulary of a 3-year-old child and, according to several infant IQ tests that were administered to her over the years, an IQ in the 70-90 range. Though spurious to compare this to a human infant, in a human this would be classed as slow for her age, not president material.

There are parts of the Montreal Cognitive Test that she might have fared better than human children her age, though, given her ability in the IQ assessments.

"In some types of questions, Koko did better than human counterparts of her age. At age four-and-one-half, she scored better than the average child of six in her ability to discriminate between same and different, and in her ability to detect flaws in a series of incomplete or distorted drawings," Patterson wrote of Koko in her book The Education of Koko. "She astonished me with her ability to complete logical progressions like the Raven's Progressive Matrices test."

However, in other areas, such as the verbal section or pathfinding, it's likely she wouldn't have fared as well.

"Koko generally performed worse than children when a verbal rather than a pointing response was required. When tasks involved detailed drawings, such as penciling a path through a maze, or precise coordination, such as fitting puzzle pieces together. Koko’s performance was distinctly inferior to that of children," Patterson wrote.

Koko died in 2018, and she was one of a kind, as far as we know (alas, Amy the gorilla in the film Congo doesn't count). 

So, apologies, President Gorilla fans, you're not going to get your wish any time soon.


[H/T: Mediate]


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