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Threads from a Tangled Skein

Out of a tangled skein of observations of animal communication, some common strands emerge. The profound effect of human language on human thought positively leaps out. Humans—no matter where we live—acquire an incredibly complex language so early in life that it colors everything we think. In fact, memories of events that occurred before we had words to describe them remain hazy and vague—if we can remember any such early events at all. And we are so steeped in our ability to symbolize reality that we tend to forget the difference between the symbol and the reality, confusing, for example, “my country” for the place we live and “the enemy” for the fellow human at the other end of the battlefield.

It’s no wonder, then, that we think of animal communication in terms of human language. We tend to measure animals’ ways of communicating against the “standard” of human language. Scientists, linguists and philosophers argue about whether apes can truly communicate in human sign language or with arbitrary symbols organized in a humanlike grammar. But we know relatively little about apes’ natural modes of communication.

A tendency to see human verbal language as all important shows up in the story of Clever Hans, the “mathematical” horse. People of the time stood ready to believe that Hans could understand human speech and carry out verbal commands to add and subtract—accomplishments observers could identify with. But they declared Hans a fraud and lost interest when skeptics revealed that the horse was “only” exquisitely sensitive to human body language—a means of communication of which we are only vaguely aware. We are similarly impressed with a dog that seems to understand it’s master’s voice, but uninterested in his truly amazing ability to identify the three neighborhood dogs who have recently visited his favorite lamp post from the odor of their urine.

Humans harbor an acute conscious awareness of communicating. But do animals? A wide spectrum of conscious awareness exists between the extremes of composing a sonnet and an unconscious knee-jerk reflex, but scientists and philosophers have laid animal communication at each end. On the other hand, in The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker argues persuasively that animal communication represents far less than the equivalent of human language, and in Animal Minds, Donald R. Griffin argues persuasively that animal communication represents far more than a reflex. A safe stance would call animal communication neither a poem nor a twitch. But placing animal communication more precisely on the spectrum may prove difficult. Even in the case of talking parrots, the animals best able to imitate human language, and the great apes, our nearest relatives and probably the “smartest” non-human animals, we know little about how conscious they are of communicating, and researchers do not agree on how much their behavior resembles human language.

Another thread to emerge from a study of animal communications tells of the power of evolution. Given an ecological niche, the slow (on biological time scale), random process of evolution will fill it. If males expend great energy to attract females, they open an ecological niche for “cheaters,” males who sit quietly and wait for the female to arrive. The presence of such sneaky males itself opens a niche for females with some means of identifying the true owner of the territory. If niches become available for a wide variety of bird species in a tropical forest, not only will new species arise, but they will evolve unique means of communication.

The tremendous variety of modes of communication that have evolved demonstrates the fundamental role of communication among all animals and many other forms of life as well. Animals use every sense, gesturing with appendages and body position; sending and receiving subtle—or not so subtle in the case of frightened skunks—odor signals; squeaking, squawking, singing and chirping; sending and receiving electrical signals; flashing lights; changing skin pigmentation; “dancing;” and even tapping and vibrating the surface they walk on.

The full range of data collected by animal communication researchers, though vastly broader than what The Language of Animals touches on—still only represents the tip of the iceberg. No doubt future research will bring a richer understanding of those instances of animal communication we know about today and will bring to light many new and equally fascinating stories of communication among the animals.

[Originally the final chapter in The Language of Animals]