What do we really mean by the ‘language’ of animals?

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

The reality of animal communication (or, more precisely, our belief in that reality) is a fact underwritten not by science but by direct experience. A dog owner knows that his dog communicates with him because he makes eye contact with it, notices its body movements, listens to its barks and whines and yips, and associates all of these actions with the contexts in which they occur and the actions that take place before and after such ‘signals’ have been sent. The owner unscientifically — but naturally and effortlessly — projects into the dog a sense of awareness and autonomy similar to the one he himself possesses. Since this projection is rewarded day after day with actions and responses by the dog that are consistent and expected, he quickly comes to ‘know’ that his dog communicates.

This belief, it should go without saying, is one held by virtually everyone who has owned a pet, worked with an animal or even observed the social behaviour of higher mammals in zoos. Animals do communicate. But do they have languages?

This fascinating and, it should be admitted, fiendishly difficult question is the target of Eva Meijer’s Animal Languages: The Secret Conversations of the Living World. The confident tone of its title — no caveats or conditionals here — gives her conclusion away, and its use of the plural ‘conversations’ hints at her plan for persuasive victory: an assault en masse with every study and anecdote and news item she can find, across virtually the whole sweep of the animal kingdom, to prove that animals could, probably — no, in fact, do — have languages.

To be sure, her barrage of stories is fascinating and there is much to learn from them. I was pleased to discover that albatrosses extend their intricate mating dances over several years and several partners until they find their permanent mates; to read that prairie dogs are able to give alarm calls that differentiate not only hawk from human, but indicate the colour of that human’s shirt; to know that adult cats meow only at people — apparently it’s an inter-species signal — and not to each other.

Deploying case after case, Meijer proves that many animals are sophisticated, more intelligent than we may have assumed and often surprising (‘Animals Do the Darndest Things’ could have been a workable alternative title). Yet proving that all of this communicative activity amounts to one or more ‘languages’ is a challenge she should have approached with more seriousness.

Language, after all, is traditionally a human-centric concept, focused as it is on the myriad spoken tongues that our species has used and continues to use among its members — though we’ve expanded the definition over time to include physical actions,  as in sign language, and later added to the concept the highly structured ‘languages’ we use to instruct computers. Given that she never misses an opportunity to present whatever evidence bolsters her case that a particular animal’s communication system is based on a ‘grammar’, Meijer acknowledges that ‘language’ does in fact lie at the most complex and subtle end of the communication spectrum.

The actual evidence for grammar use by animals, however, is thin and often conjectural. Meijer makes much of the complex and recursive patterns found in the songs of birds and whales — going so far as to use the language-assuming term ‘dialects’ to describe differences in songs observed in geographically dispersed animal populations (the more scientifically cautious term ‘variations’ would have been better). But in doing so she draws many unsupported conclusions. This is a habit of hers: in the span of three sentences, for instance, she goes from noting that ‘it has been argued’ that bee scent signals have their own grammar to breezily discussing ‘bee grammar’ as if it’s proven fact.

The questions she leaves unasked are fundamental. What role does brain size play in potential intelligence and thus in the likelihood of language use — and can organisms as different as bees and dolphins even be compared as cognitive agents? What is there to lead us to believe that the untranslatable complexity of whale song implies a conversation — ‘How’s the krill in your neck of the ocean?’ — rather than, much more simply, a tune used to keep in touch over long distances? How are we to guess at the signal-to-noise ratio in the massive data sets of recorded notes and trills from starlings? Why does she assume it’s mostly all signal — that complexity of sound must imply complexity of messaging? Evolution has a playful sense of the baroque about it and often uses sophisticated looking means to accomplish fairly banal things.

By the end, Meijer essentially shrugs the problem away. Language, she decides, should be defined as whatever animals are doing to communicate with each other, and with us. This classic escape manoeuvre of defining a difficult concept down to its least impressive denominator immediately eliminates the philosophical-scientific problem, and opens up — for the author, at least — an exciting implication. As language users (see preceding circular definition), animals are capable of expressing their needs and desires (the macaques of Singapore are ‘questioning the hierarchy’ when they steal food from humans, Meijer asserts) and thus should have political rights. Not just the negative rights, mind you, of being protected from cruelty or arbitrary killing, but positive rights, such as the right to a homeland (for wild animals), to shelter (for domesticated species) and even to political representation. Not straight away, of course, but once ‘the current system’ has been appropriately modified.

Politics is downstream of culture, and, obviously, of language as well. If you were curious about what might follow the current push to give 16-year-old humans the vote, you now have your answer. But Meijer and her fellow advocates, if successful, will not be able to dodge the larger question to come: are individualistic seeming cats really going to vote Lib Dem, or will they reveal themselves as shy Tories? What an ironic twist in the story of progress that would be.

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