Chasing Doctor Dolittle

Learning the Language of Animals

Con Slobodchikoff, Ph.D.

St. Martin's Press

1. DOCTOR DOLITTLE AND ANIMAL LANGUAGE
 

Do animals have language? When they make sounds, are they really speaking? Can you imagine how the world would change if we found out that they really do have something to say? People have long been fascinated with the idea that animals can talk. I have been interested in this idea for a long time, which has prompted me to spend many years decoding the language of prairie dogs through experiments in the field and the laboratory. As far back as 2,500 years ago, Aesop’s fables featured animals talking to one another. Even today, we might watch two dogs barking and think that they might be talking about how strong and fierce they are, or they might be telling each other about the humans they have to live with. We have longed to know if there is any meaning behind the barks, meows, whistles, raised feathers, chemical sprays, and all the other elements that are grouped by scientists into the general category of animal communication. When our cat looks up at us and meows, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know what the cat means? And when we tell our darkest secrets to our dog, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that our dog really understands us like no human friend could? This is the Doctor Dolittle fantasy—that we can learn to decode animal signals and find that underneath, there is language we can understand.
In the books by Hugh Lofting, Doctor Dolittle learned to interpret the whistles, grunts, groans, and body postures of different animal species from his parrot, Polynesia, who in her long life of more than 160 years had learned all animal languages. She dictated to Doctor Dolittle a complete dictionary of all of the words that animals use, telling him that each species of animal has its own language, but all of the animals can understand one another’s languages. With that dictionary, Doctor Dolittle was able to speak to his dog, to a pig, to white mice, to monkeys, and to a variety of other animals, leading him on to many adventures around the world.
In this book, I invite you to be Doctor Dolittle. Dare to imagine that animals say meaningful things to one another. Let me play the role of Polynesia while I show you the many signals that animals use to increase their success at locating food, telling friend from foe, escaping danger, and finding a mate. After reading this book, you might not be able to set up a practice like Doctor Dolittle’s, but you will have a much better idea of what animals may really be saying to one another.
Let me begin by explaining that my using the term animal language is equivalent to waving a red cape in front of a bull for many scientists and academics: It’s very controversial. That’s because, according to many scientists and linguistic professionals, language is the last gulf that separates us from all of the other animals. Over time, all of the other barriers have fallen by the wayside. Not too long ago, people thought that we were the only tool users, the only ones with culture, the only ones with a sense of self. All of that has crumbled as we have found out more and more about other animals. We can’t even claim that we are the only ones with warfare who indiscriminately kill one another, because ants have been doing that for millions of years before us. So all we have left to cling to—that makes us special and separate, that sets us apart from all of the rest of the natural world—is language.
In my view, that separateness does not exist. We are all part of the natural world. We are the product of the same evolutionary process that has shaped every species on earth. I believe that animals might have languages that are designed to fit their needs, just has we humans have languages that are designed to fit ours. We simply don’t know enough about the lives of animals to make the sweeping assumption that language is outside their capabilities. To study animal communication systems most effectively, we need to be able to understand the world from the animals’ point of view, and the context may not yet be apparent to us because it might be too subtle for us to recognize with our current limited sense of understanding.
The idea that animals have language is frightening to some people, but it is also empowering to animals. When people find out that an animal species has a language, they often look at that species in a more compassionate way. The prairie dogs that I have studied for many years are considered by many people to be pests and vermin, suitable only for eradication, despite the fact that they are a keystone species in grassland ecosystems, who prop up some two hundred other vertebrate species that depend to a greater or lesser extent on the activities of these animals. In just one hundred years, human activities and a disease introduced by humans have caused prairie dogs to decline to about 2 percent of their previous numbers. Many people would like to see that 2 percent decline to 0, despite the fact that it would rip to shreds the ecological functioning of grasslands.
But when I tell people that prairie dogs have a sophisticated language, opinions change. I have given a number of presentations to city councils and citizen groups about both the ecological value and the language of prairie dogs, and what really causes them to rethink their attitudes about these animals is the language aspect. It’s as if they suddenly start to empathize with this creature, not as some kind of mindless pest that is bent on destroying agricultural crops and grass intended for cattle, but as a living, breathing partner in the natural world that surrounds us. And with that realization, people are far more willing to extend the opportunity to prairie dogs to coexist with humans. Instead of poisoning or shooting the animals, they suddenly become receptive to other alternatives, such as relocating them to places where they are not interfering with human activities.
Changing our attitudes in order to rebuild the bridge linking our species with other species is a risky business because of its enormous implications on our own attitudes and behaviors. We might have to start looking at animals in a different light, but it is possible to do so.
However, even with a change in attitude, that still leaves the challenge of how to design scientific experiments to determine the language capabilities of any given species. If we back off from our initial judgments about animals and open ourselves to the possibility that they don’t just signal, but they actually might have a language, how do we design experiments that would allow us to determine whether or not they do?
Looking for language in animals involves questions about whether they have some awareness of themselves as individuals, because one of the main driving forces in the use of language is its power to affect the behavior of others, usually to the advantage of the speaker. Many species make signals, but as we will see, some of these signals are hardwired in an animal’s genetic code and are given involuntarily when the proper cue triggers them. Other animal species can decide to produce signals that are specific to different contexts. We tend to think of language as something that is just verbal, but my view of language includes a variety of signals, such as body postures and mixes of chemical odors. Once we open ourselves to the possibility that an individual animal has the capability of distinguishing itself from the other animals around it, then we also open the door to the idea that animals might actually intend to communicate with one another. It is this intentionality that separates mere signaling from language.
Fortunately, attitudes about animals are now starting to change and many more scientists are willing to ascribe emotions, personality, and individuality to at least some species. And it turns out that once we look at animals with an open mind, we can find a lot of evidence to show that they intentionally communicate with each other, deliberately selecting the best signals in their repertoire to transmit a lot of information about the world around them and often using their signals to influence others.
It’s my contention—one that I will expand upon in this book—that those communication systems can be considered “language.” To avoid the barriers and pitfalls that have stalled animal language debates up until this time, I am drawing upon my extensive scientific experience in studying animal behavior to present a new theory of language—the Discourse System—that shows how language is part of a series of structural and physiological adaptations that animals have for communicating information to others. I will explain the Discourse System in more detail in chapter 3, but its chief highlight is that it takes language off its ethereal cloud as some sort of angelic gift granted only to humans, and places it back where it belongs—as part and parcel of a functioning physiological and structural system, a system common to many species.
Although down the road, many species may eventually prove to have language, we have to keep in mind that these languages need not be the same, or even operate in the same way, as ours. (Even Doctor Dolittle knew this!) This is because, as I emphasize when I talk about the Discourse System, language can be shaped by evolution. As such, our language evolved to meet our ecological needs, just as other animal languages serve the ecological needs of other species.
After I explain some of the characteristics of language and share my Discourse System Theory, I’ll take you on a tour of the situations where animals use language—in avoiding danger, feeding, mating, fighting, and greeting. These examples are based on my own judgments. There are hardly any studies done that explicitly say that they are dealing with animal language, simply because the prevailing scientific paradigm is that it’s not possible for animals to have language. After all, if something doesn’t exist, why should anyone try to study it? But I believe that someone has to stand up and pose the possibility that animals might have language. We have to get off our human-dominated pedestals and begin to open our minds to the idea that we have more in common with other species than we’d like to think. Language is the last bastion separating us from all other living beings on earth, and I say, let’s have a go at breaking down that wall. Doctor Dolittle, here we come!

 
Copyright © 2012 by Con Slobodchikoff, Ph.D.