Note: I wrote this little essay about a month ago, when New England was still under a thick shawl of snow. I lost the essay, and just found it again. So here it is.
The day after New England’s first blizzard of the season, I saw tracks on the snow. The snow was 2-3 feet thick, and except where I’d ploughed a canyon through it, was smooth as a blanket. Looking carefully, though, I saw a single line gouged in the smoothness, from the elm tree all the way to the covered porch. There is a space under the porch that is home to a mysterious animal, which may be a possum. (When my dog was alive I always knew, from his excited sniffing, when our tenant was home). There were rabbit tracks all the way to the front door, and a more delicate tracery of bird footprints. These spoke to me of recent histories almost as explicitly as if each track, each footprint, was a letter or pictogram of a language inscribed on the featureless white page of snow.
That Nature speaks – that animate beings and inanimate things communicate – is perhaps no mystery to the scientist or artist. The world is full of stories, although we humans seem to be disproportionately tuned to the exclusively human ones. But animals, trees, protons and stars are always telling stories, and it is our loss that our selective deafness shuts out these other tales. To the naturalist, the nibbled tips of a wild plant, or the change in flow of a stream, hint of certain animal presences. To a geologist walking through a canyon, the colors, striations and textures of rocks tell a story of the earth’s past. To a particle physicist looking at particle tracks, the intangible mysteries of the sub-atomic world are, for that moment and context, revealed. There is an aesthetics of science that is missed by most non-scientists, and sometimes by scientists as well. Ultimately what pure scientists do is to listen to, and interpret through mathematics and conceptual structure-building, the stories Nature tells us.
The stories told by inanimate things is truly fascinating, and is part of my work on creative new ways of teaching physics, but that is a whole other post. Today, while snowbound during yet another storm too soon after the last one, I want to think about communication and language in the context of our non-human fellow earthlings.
I’ve seen cartoons about the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, on the “Are We Alone?” theme. A human looks through a telescope at the stars, wondering if our species is an anomaly in the universe. What I’ve always found ironic about this trope is that we are surrounded by other beings that are constantly communicating. I am a fan of the search for life beyond Earth, don’t get me wrong — I think that the huge numbers of exoplanets discovered on a near-daily basis indicate that life, (‘intelligent’ or otherwise according to our standards), may be rather common outside of our little rock – but my point is that we are so arrogantly or ignorantly unaware of all that is being spoken around us that it would be laughable if it wasn’t also sad.
Anyone who has had an animal companion knows that dogs, cats, birds communicate, and do so rather well. But the view that animals are inferior, that they don’t feel, suffer pain, or have language, is widespread in much of so-called civilization. The othering of non-humans is responsible for monstrous practices in the name of ‘scientific’ meat production, for instance, in which hundreds of thousands of animals are confined under unimaginably inhumane conditions in factory farms, still mostly in the West. Animals are lesser beings, they don’t really suffer, we are told. Only the more ‘primitive’ peoples (including meat-eaters) tell it differently, or children do, and we treat both with a condescending disregard. Lately, though, a volume of ethological research is revealing that animals are complex beings; with mammals, in particular, we share emotional and physiological similarities. The work of Marc Beckoff is of particular interest. He begins by discussing the possibility that magpies mourn. Reading it, I was immediately taken back to an experience I had while being driven through a busy street in a van. The driver was taking me home from the car repair place where I’d dropped off my car and we were chatting about some inconsequential thing. The road was narrow. Then I saw that on the yellow line between the two opposing lanes of heavy traffic, there stood a small bird. Between the flash of passing cars and trucks, on the other side of the road, lay what was likely its partner, dead. “Brave little bird,” the driver said. It was all so vivid and fast that I scarcely realized what I’d seen until we had turned onto the state highway. I remember the feathers on the live bird’s back being ruffled by the wind of passing traffic. I have never forgotten that moment, or ceased to rue the fact that I did not, could not, stop and do something about it.
If animals speak, what are they saying? We might think immediately about the ‘higher’ animals like chimpanzees, but recent work on the prairie dog, the small rodent of the American great plains, considered a pest, killed in the millions, reveals something rather astounding.
Not only do prairie dog calls change on the basis of what kind of predator is walking through their settlement – human, coyote, dog – but the researcher found that they can communicate much more detail:
He found, to his delight, that the calls broke down into groups based on the color of the volunteer’s shirt. “I was astounded,” says Slobodchikoff. But what astounded him even more, was that further analysis revealed that the calls also clustered based on other characteristics, like the height of the human. “Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’ ” says Slobodchikoff.
(Picture credit: Wikipedia)
More recently research on white-handed gibbons, the long-armed apes of Asia, reveals the nuances of what I can only call their language. Here is a quote from the abstract of Angela Dassow’s thesis:
What is the difference between communication and language? In non-human animals, communication is widely viewed as a behavior; a reflexive activity designed to produce behavioral responses in conspecifics or across species. In contrast, language is a human affair. It transfers conceptual knowledge from speaker to listener and has extraordinarily generalizable descriptive powers. We reevaluate this distinction in the context of vocalizations of white-handed gibbons (Hylobates lar), demonstrating previously unrecognized complexity and structure in their vocalizations.
The research identifies several base sounds that are combined in different ways to make meaning. According to an article in New Scientist, here are some calls that scientists have identified:
Clouded leopard – ‘Wooo-hoo-hoo-hoo-wa-wa’
Snake – ‘Wooo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo’
I’m a male gibbon and I’m with her – ‘Waa-hoo-wa-waa-wa-wa’
I’m a female gibbon and I’m with him – ‘Wa-waa-waaa-hoo-waa-hoo’
I read this with feverish excitement and spent the next few minutes attempting to speak gibbonish. This is BIG. That we are finally deciphering what our fellow non-human-beings are speaking should be front-page news.
Then there’s research on whale communication. I am particularly interested in Bowhead whales, since I had the pleasure of visiting Alaska’s North Slope last year as part of an academic project. In Barrow, I spoke to a biologist who has worked on bowhead whales for decades, whose work helped establish that these gentle baleen feeders have extraordinarily long lives, perhaps as much as 200 years. We speculated about what these whales think about, and talk about, as they navigate the Arctic in pods. They are highly intelligent, and like other whales, communicate through sound. Oceanographer Kate Stafford’s work indicates that perhaps bowheads, among all other whales, are the most sophisticated songs. Here you can read further and listen to sound clips of their songs.
What about communication between humans and other species? There is a lot of work on this, from chimpanzees who’ve learned American Sign Language to parrots who know what they’re talking about.
About Washoe, the chimp:
“She always checked out your shoes, and if you had new ones she’d sign for you to show them to her,” Dr. Jensvold said. “Then she might sign something about the color. She was a real shoe lady that way.”
In fiction, a great book by Karen Joy Fowler is fiction based on early experiments with chimps – the story of a girl brought up with one, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.”
Irene Pepperberg’s research with Alex, the African Grey Parrot, changed the way we think about intelligence. Perhaps ‘bird-brain’ can no longer be used as an insult.
An extract from Alex’s obituary in 2007 summarizes some of his achievements.
By the end, said Dr Pepperberg, Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old child and had not reached his full potential. He had a vocabulary of 150 words. He knew the names of 50 objects and could, in addition, describe their colours, shapes and the materials they were made from. He could answer questions about objects’ properties, even when he had not seen that particular combination of properties before. He could ask for things—and would reject a proffered item and ask again if it was not what he wanted. He understood, and could discuss, the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same” and “different”. And he could count up to six, including the number zero (and was grappling with the concept of “seven” when he died). He even knew when and how to apologise if he annoyed Dr Pepperberg or her collaborators.
On a less academic note, but still enchanting, here is a video of a band playing to a herd of cows in France:
Can all this help us change how we treat our fellow beings? It’s not about turning vegetarian, necessarily. There have always been peoples living closely with nature who hunt and eat animals, yet also think of them as beings in their own right. It is about abolishing factory farms, and cutting down on meat, unless you live in the Arctic, and it is about saving ecosystems and habitats. It’s about rethinking cities, and making room for non-endangered species as well as threatened ones. It’s about giving animals legal rights, such as Bolivia’s Rights of Mother Earth, and the 2013 Indian High court giving dolphins the standing of non-human persons, in one fell swoop abandoning sea-world-style dolphin parks.
We are in the middle of a mass extinction. We are getting rid of species we know nothing about. Not only are we destroying the web of interdependence that maintains the systems we live by, but we are missing out on innumerable potential conversations. It is a sad irony that (perhaps) most people do not want to hurt animals, but the structures of greed and profiteering in which we are caught do these things on our behalf, on a mass scale.
But at its heart it is about fundamentally changing how we view our fellow beings. As naturalist Henry Beston said, and as most of the old cultures know,
They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
The world speaks to us. If we humans can, some of the time at least, get off our various electronic devices and listen – risk boredom, risk the terror of being alone with ourselves, until other voices start to make themselves heard, perhaps we will find that we are not alone after all. Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic speculative story of a world in constant conversation (Author of the Acacia Seeds) speaks to this truth. How wonderful to re-read it in 2015 and know that her conception of ‘therolinguistics,’ the study of language among non-humans, is becoming a real field of study! Read this story, and savor, in particular, the gorgeous closing paragraph.
Remember that so late as the mid-twentieth century, most scientists, and many artists, did not believe that Dolphin would ever be comprehensible to the human brain—or worth comprehending! Let another century pass, and we may seem equally laughable. “Do you realise,” the phytolinguist will say to the aesthetic critic, “that they couldn’t even read Eggplant?” And they will smile at our ignorance, as they pick up their rucksacks and hike on up to read the newly deciphered lyrics of the lichen on the north face of Pike’s Peak.
And with them, or after them, may there not come that even bolder adventurer—the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.