“Hello, baby. Check me out”: Animals speak but don’t say much

Painstaking research identified animal "speech." But despite scientists' hopes, critters are stuck on the basics

Topics: Books, Writers and Writing, Science, Animals, Neuroscience, apes, Language, Editor's Picks, ,

"Hello, baby. Check me out": Animals speak but don't say much (Credit: EBFoto via Shutterstock)
Excerpted from "The Gap"

There is between the whole animal kingdom on the one side, and man, even in his lowest state, on the other, a barrier which no animal has ever crossed, and that barrier is—Language.
—FRIEDRICH MAX MÜLLER

In 1873, two years after the publication of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man,” Friedrich Max Müller, chair of philology at Oxford, posed a counterargument that no other animal had anything remotely like human language and hence there was no sign of gradual evolution, as Darwin’s theory seemed to predict. He raised this issue in defiance of the 1866 ban on discussions of the evolution of language by the Linguistic Society of Paris. In fact, Müller’s argument was perceived to be a serious threat to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Recall that in the absence of genetics and a detailed fossil record, the debate centered on evidence of continuity between living species. Thus Müller’s claim about the language barrier not only was relevant to humans’ purported unique position but turned into an early battleground about the very theory of evolution. At the time little was known about primate communication, and Darwin himself wrote: “I wish someone would keep a lot of the most noisy monkeys, half free and study the means of communication.”

Enter Richard Garner—a young man from Virginia who in the 1890s, with the help of Edison’s newly invented cylinder phonograph, went out to decipher the vocalizations of primates through playback experiments. The idea was to record primate vocalizations in various circumstances and then play them back to other individuals to study their responses. Garner conducted his initial work in zoos and, to wide acclaim, reported early success in identifying the vocabulary of different primate species. He claimed, for instance, to have identified capuchin monkeys’ “words” for things ranging from “food” to “sickness.” He believed that the primate tongues he discovered were limited to names for concrete things but that they were the building blocks from which human abstract notions evolved. Not surprisingly, these conclusions attracted a lot of attention from both the public and the academic world.



When Garner boldly proposed to take a phonograph to Central Africa, sit in an electrified cage, and study simian tongues in the wild, there was hope the language evolution debate could be settled once and for all. Alas, the expedition did not turn out as planned. Garner’s quest to find convincing evidence in the African jungle was a failure even before it had begun. In spite of links with Edison, he did not manage to obtain a phonograph for the mission. When he returned, he faced an avalanche of accusations in the popular press about inconsistencies in his reports about what had occurred on the expedition. Rumors spread that he did not spend months in the deepest jungle but instead lived in or near the comforts of a mission; the stories led to widespread suspicion and ridicule. In any case, Garner did not return with new evidence but with a chimpanzee that could not speak or be deciphered—and that quickly perished. There was no support for his claims about chimpanzee and gorilla language. Instead of making a mark in the annals of evolutionary theory, Garner’s dream to learn the languages of animals became firmly entrenched in the realm of fiction, most notably in the character of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle. Serious scientific attempts to discover simian languages, or to teach them ours, were put on hold.

In a fascinating account of Garner’s story, the science historian Gregory Radick suggests that one reason for this change in zeitgeist might have been the rise of ideas about evolution proceeding in leaps, as Stephen Jay Gould maintained, rather than in small, gradual steps. This reduces the need to find precursors of human language in apes. As I clarified earlier, Darwin’s theory does not have a real problem with the existence of radical discontinuities in the current record. Creatures that may have had precursors of human language, such as Homo erectus, are now extinct (leaving an apparent discontinuity between extant species). Furthermore, precursors of language need not even have been in the domain of vocalizations. It is possible that language first evolved in gestural form. Indeed, this idea of a gestural origin of human language, moving subsequently from hand to mouth as it were, is increasingly gathering momentum. The search for language precursors in primate vocalization may hence be a case of barking up the wrong tree.

Garner’s abandoned playback approach had its revival in the 1980s, when ethologists Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth conducted seminal studies on vervet monkey alarm calls at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. By recording alarm calls and then playing them back to the unsuspecting group at a later stage, these researchers established, for the first time, that nonhuman animal vocalizations may have meanings not entirely unlike human words, even if there exist far fewer of them. The animals make different alarm calls when they see a snake, an eagle, a leopard, or a human. When played back the monkeys tend to react differentially and appropriately to such calls. That is, they hide under a tree if the call is the eagle alarm, but they run up the tree if it is the leopard alarm.

These calls are gradually learned but limited to alarms only. There is no evidence for vervets stringing them together, let alone generating open-ended sentences. They do not show any evidence for recursion in their communication. A monkey may on occasion falsely utter the alarm call for “leopard,” making the rest of the troop run up the tree while he stays behind and eats the food the others discarded. This seems like a pretty clever form of tactical deception, but it also illustrates the lack of reasoning about what the others know. The monkeys up in the tree do not seem troubled by the fact the individual that cried wolf did not flee himself and instead took their food. They do not seem to reflect on (that is, meta-represent) the discrepancy between what the individual’s alarm represents and what his lack of running away represents. There is no evidence of reflective embedding in other monkey communication either. Although perhaps a building block on which human language was constructed, the calls of monkeys are limited in terms of flexibility, meaning, and use.

Indeed most animal vocalizations seem to be under emotional rather than cognitive control. When researchers stimulate a subcortical part of the brain known as the periaqueductal gray, it causes meowing and growling in cats, shrieking and barking in rhesus monkeys, echolocating in bats, and laughing in chimpanzees and humans. Destruction of this area causes muteness. The area is indispensable for animal vocalization and nonverbal human vocalization. As we have seen, human speech, on the other hand, is primarily driven by cortical areas of the left hemisphere that allow for voluntary control and extreme flexibility. Animal vocalization may hence not be closely related to human speech.

Nonetheless, some animal communication systems are quite sophisticated. Bee dance, for instance, communicates the size of a food source, the distance, and the horizontal direction. However, close examinations of communication systems of animals have found them to be restricted to a few types of information exchanges, typically to do with reproduction, territory, food, and alarm. There appears to be little content transferred beyond these realms. There is as yet no sign that animal communication features the open-ended flexibility that typifies human language.

What about whales? you might ask. Humpback whales sing in the most curious manner, they have large brains, and there is even evidence that they learn the songs from each other. Are they talking about us behind our backs? Disappointingly, the answer is “probably not.” The possible information content of a humpback whale song is estimated to be low indeed—just enough to say, “Hello, baby. Check me out.” Researchers now think it likely the songs are serving a simple mate-attraction function.

Excerpted with permission from “The Gap:The science of what separates us from other animals,” by Thomas Suddendorf. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...