Can animals improve their natural vocabularies?
By David Brin
ENCINITAS, California — A recent, fascinating recent study is Decoding Animal Languages, by Con Slobodchikoff. At one level, it is an inspiring demonstration of how new technologies can liberate us from preconceptions and open new avenues of empathy, helping humans to understand the other species who co-inhabit this planet with us.
As Temple Grandin has pointed out, in her campaigns to reform the meat industry, we do not have to entirely abandon the omnivorous cravings of our caveman ancestry. But we are obliged to offer our fellow creatures the best deal that’s compatible with our legitimate needs. Doing that entails finding paths of greater care and understanding. Prof. Grandin explores the language of animals through her gifts as the world’s most impressive and high-functioning fully autistic person. Dr. Slobodchikoff is doing it with acoustical science.
I have some history in this area, having visited many researchers to learn about animal communications, in preparation for my “uplift” series of novels. These portray a future in which humanity meddles with the intellectual capacities of higher animals. Prior authors explored this territory — HG Wells, Pierre Boule, Cordwainer Smith – so I avoided their standard scenario that, in arrogating the promethean powers of God, humans would reflexively opt to be cruel or to enslave the new minds. Instead, my readers explore what problems neo-dolphins or neo-chimps might have, even were the endeavor done with skill, kindness and best intentions.
The end result – 200 years down the road, might be a pan-Terran civilization filled with broader styles and more diversity of wisdom – a fine dream. But are we willing to pay the price? Which would be pain. Lots of it, unavoidable, for those intermediate generations of cetaceans and simians, and for ourselves, as some of the steps and missteps along the way prove awkward, mistaken, or even or tragic.
I have no doubt that powerful forces from both left and right would unite (as I portray in my new novel) against any such effort, one side decrying any hubristic attempt to revise God’s plan and the other proclaiming that natural species are already smart enough, with great linguistic abilities and their own nobility of spirit, equal in value to our own. I do not wholly disagree with the second of these objections! But it is, in the end, wrongheaded.
Consider the recent work of Dr. Slobodchikoff and others, demonstrating the basic linguistic ability of prairie dogs, adding them to a long list of species who can signal complex arrays of factual-practical information. And the smaller but significant number of even-smarter species who seem capable of genuine sentence structure, questions, answers and basic logical-semantic interpretation. Those who can do all this, with vocabularies in hundreds of words, include dolphins, apes, parrots, corvids (crows), pinnipeds (sea lions) and dozens more (with dolphins and chimps slightly ahead). Is this evidence, as Dr. Slobodchikoff implies and as many on the left insist, that all these threshold races have what’s sufficient, noble, and in no need of human “help”?
Or does it suggest the very opposite? All seem to crowd against an obdurate and perhaps natural limit, bumping against the same glass ceiling. Evolution brought each, separately, to the point where individuals can interact tribally, solve basic riddles, organize a few, primitive-coordinated activities, and perhaps (in a few cases) contemplate some kinds of irony, esthetics or even whimsy. But Darwin is stingy. He allows urgent species (sometimes) to achieve their minimal needs. But it is another matter to get what you want. And speaking purely anecdotally, I can tell you that the dolphins who interact with sincere human researchers appear to want – desperately – to be smarter than they are. It is a subjective impression I have heard from the scientists themselves, a number of times.
There is growing evidence that something very special happened to a few thousand African hominids, half a million or so years ago… and in accelerating stages ever since, up to today. That special thing – a runaway selection process that made a race capable of contemplating what YOU are contemplating, right now – was certainly unique on Earth and may be unprecedented across vast stretches of the Galaxy. It enabled us to rise so high that our abilities and numbers may threaten the whole planet. Or else – if we choose – empower us to save the Earth, and heal it and tend and manage it.
Either way, that’s power, man.
Those who attempt to downplay this leap, by saying animals have “language” too, miss the point. It s not in simple, qualitative, on-off switches like “tool use” or use of basic semantics that we are so profoundly different. It is the additive, multiplicative, exponentiated effects that have come from combining a myriad skills in a stunning momentum of mind.
While some of our savants ponder how to analyze, emulate and even amplify these powers in silica, it may be time, as well, to contemplate the cousin consciousnesses that we already have, all around us. Natural beings who may not have to bump against the hard ceiling of their pre-sapient limits forever, but whose destinies may be broad and vast indeed… providing we grow wise and good and skilled enough to show the way.
Brin is a scientist, acclaimed science fiction writer and son of the late poet and publisher of the Jewish Heritage newspapers Herb Brin. This column appeared on his personal blog, Contrary Brin, at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com .
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