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Here’s What Would Happen If Animals Could Talk

8 minute read
Carl Safina, a professor at Stony Brook University, is the author of Alfie and Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe

One century ago in the 1915 trenches of World War I, a young engineer named Hugh Lofting was moved by the sufferings of innocent horses and mules drafted into the horrifying vortex of human destruction. Needing something to say in letters home to his small children, he invented a certain doctor to minister to the beasts. This remarkable man could, Lofting explained to his children, talk with animals. He would name his doctor “Dolittle” and place him in Victorian England amidst all that period’s rich discoveries of the living world.

The last century has been the worst in history for relations among humans and between humans and non-human animals. Perhaps we might look ourselves in the mirror and ask whether we should still aspire to talk to the animals—who doesn’t share Lofting’s dream?—or whether we should aspire instead to turn down our chatter and do a better job of listening to what animals need us to hear.

The 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.” He implied that lions inhabit a world unintelligibly different. Yet if a lion could talk, he’d likely bore us with the mundane: the waterhole, the warthogs, wildebeest ad nauseum. Lions’ concerns—food, mates, children, and safety—are our concerns. After all, humans are animals.

Millions of species communicate using body language and instinctive calls. Humans have instinctive calls, too—our distress scream, laughter, crying. Additionally, humans have a brain template for acquiring language. Onto this template we learn Italian, Malagasy, and so on. Chimpanzees can learn to sign things like, “Give me apple” (apes cannot form human-like sounds). But extensive vocabulary with grammar and syntax appears unique to humans. Complex language allows storytelling. Not simply a monkey or bird’s present-tense, “Danger! Snake!” but a human’s ability to convey, “I saw a snake there yesterday; be careful.”

When a human child says, “I thinked,” instead of “thought,” they’re intuitively applying a grammatical rule. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker believes that human brains come preprogrammed with a language instinct to create verbal structure, acquiring grammar and employing syntax. So human language comes as naturally to humans as rumbling and trumpeting come to elephants, howling and growling to wolves, and clicking and whistling to dolphins.

The implications are unsettling. Perhaps we are as truly, deeply, and constitutionally incapable of understanding the richness that other species perceive in their own communications as they are incapable of understanding human conversation. What if their communication modalities are borders we can smudge but never truly cross? “Talking with the animals” may be impossible.

And yet. There’s a little more to it. Orangutans sometimes pantomime what they would like from a human. When the human seems to partially understand their meaning, orangutans repeat gestures. But when misunderstood, an orangutan tries new signals. Asked to find an object that isn’t in their pool, dolphins and sea lions either look extra hard or don’t bother looking. They know that what they’re looking for, and understand whether it’s there. Dolphins can understand the difference between, “Get the ring from John and give it to Susan,” and “Get the ring from Susan and give it to John.” They understand that order can change meaning; that’s syntax—the hallmark of human language.

When someone insists that we cannot know another species’ thoughts because we can’t talk to them, there is a large dollop of truth here. But words are at best a loose cargo net of labels that we throw over our wild and wooly perceptions. Speech is a slippery grip for capturing thoughts. People lie. “I love you,” is enough said, but more reliable if silently shown. Visual arts, music, and dance continue ancestral conversations when words cease.

African elephants have one particular alarm that appears to be their word for, “Bees!” A friend of mine saw impalas run away when they heard elephants scream at a pack of wild dogs; her guide said that impalas never run when elephants are screaming at people or each other. That means elephants say some specific things that impalas understand. Baby elephants have two very different “words” expressing contentment or annoyance. They respond to being comforted by going, aauurrrr, and to being annoyed—pushed, tusked, kicked, or denied their mother’s breast—by going, barooo. Certain rumbles by mothers have the immediate effect of bringing a wandering baby back to her side. It seems fair to interpret them as saying, “Come here.”

Vervet monkey use calls with distinct meanings. In other words: words. If a dangerous cat is detected, the alarm sends everyone up a tree. When a dangerous eagle flies over, the monkeys’ alarm call causes other monkeys to look up and run into ground-cover (not up a tree). They don’t utter alarms for eagle species that don’t prey on monkeys. A monkey who sees a dangerous snake gives a ‘chuttering’ call that causes other vervets to stand up, scanning the ground for the snake. All told, vervets have words meaning ‘leopard’, ‘eagle’, ‘snake’, ‘baboon’, ‘other predatory mammal’, ‘unfamiliar human’, ‘dominant monkey’, ‘subordinate monkey’, ‘watch other monkey’, and ‘rival troop’.

Titi, putty-nosed, colobus monkeys, and some others add information by the order of calls. If the threat is far-off, Campbell’s monkeys introduce their alarm call by a sort of adjective, a low-pitched “boom” that means basically, “I see a distant leopard and am keeping an eye on it. Just be aware.” Without the boom the alarm means, urgently, “Leopard—here!” They have three call sequences for leopards and four for crowned eagles. When a capuchin monkey in Trinidad left his withdrawing group, came into a tree over our heads, and started breaking branches and throwing them at us, he was clearly communicating, “Go away.” One morning, our guide said he heard a bird known as a motmot saying “snake!” Sure enough, we soon found the excited motmot up in some high branches, fluttering around a Cook’s tree-boa, alerting other birds and blowing the snake’s stealth. Rutgers professor Joanna Burger’s Amazon parrot, Tiko, gives different calls for hawk, person, cat, or a dog in the yard. “I know what’s there,” she tells me, “before I look.”

When I’m at my own desk, I can tell by the barks whether my two dogs Jude and Chula are barking at someone walking past alone or with a dog, or at a delivery person, a squirrel they’ve treed, or each other in mock combat. Our coarse words—“screech,” “bark”—for their nuanced voices and vocabularies hobble our understanding of their understanding of what they mean. It’s not as if they’re not telling us. But we remain tone-deaf, mostly.

We happen to be talkers. But most of what we jabber about is so trivial. Think of the words wasted. Think of the way truly important things can be expressed with open arms, a fingertip, a smile—no need for sentences or syntax. Trillions of creatures survive in highly demanding lives, clearly signaling their intentions, with neither adverb nor gerund. The silent power of true intent.

A breakthrough in translation was recently announced by researchers. Turns out, all species of free-living great apes use gestures to communicate. The gestures used are understood by all members in the group. They’re directed at specific individuals, who understand them, and they’re used intentionally and flexibly.

A woman named Dawn Prince-Hughes, who as an autistic child had difficulty acquiring language, found a kind of identity in the Seattle Zoo with a group of gorillas, eventually getting employment as their care-giver. She calls the gorillas, “the first and best friends I ever had … people of an ancient nation.” When the bonobo Kanzi met Prince-Hughes, he watched her mannerisms for a brief while, then he signed, “You gorilla, question?”

Perhaps the Dolittle dilemma has been miscast. Maybe instead of wanting to learn to talk to the animals, our greater need is to quiet down and learn to listen.

Excerpted from Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina, published by HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Carl Safina. All rights reserved.

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