Chasing Doctor Dolittle: The Minutes of a Meeting of Minds
In several books by Hugh Lofting, the character Dr. John
Dolittle learns the languages of animals. He goes on many adventures aided by
his animal friends. As is often the case with fantasy, the idea of
communicating with animals, not unique to Lofting's books, gets people thinking
about reality. Many of us have heard of Koko the gorilla and Alex the parrot,
who seemed to be able to learn some human language, but in his book Chasing Doctor Dolittle (St. Martin’s
Press, 2012), Con Slobodchikoff, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Northern
Arizona University, vehemently argues that many animals have languages of their
own that humans can study and perhaps learn. He scoffs at those who would argue
that language is the one thing that separates humans from animals. We and they
are, after all, both products of the same evolutionary processes.
When the author
speaks to groups about prairie dogs, talking about their ecological value does
not cause people to think more favorably of them. Instead, he says, "[W]hen
I tell people that prairie dogs have a sophisticated language, opinions change.
… It's as if they suddenly empathize with this creature, not [think of it] as
some mindless pest. "
This, of course, raises the question, what is language? The
author refers to noted linguists Charles Hockett and Noam Chomsky for
definitions of language, but seems to dismiss the idea that a communication
system must have all of some 13 to 17 design features to be taken seriously. At
the root of communication is what is contained within, i.e. information, so
Slobodchikoff also briefly touches on information theory.
Five situations in which animals might communicate
Why would an animal want to communicate? It seems to be
beneficial to a species for its individuals to look out for one another, and
Slobodchikoff talks about five kinds of situations in which communication might
be necessary: Food, mating, identification of self and others, warning of
outside danger, and warning that oneself
is the danger. He cites studies to make his point, but he augments them with
interspersed personal experiences and human situations.
The research Slobodchikoff is known for has been on the
calls of the Gunnison's prairie dog, Cynomys
gunnisoni, native to the American Southwest. His results, which have been
published in peer-reviewed journals, demonstrate that prairie dogs distinguish
not just between dogs, coyotes, hawks, and humans, but even between humans of
different sizes and shapes and those who are wearing clothing of different
colors. Slobodchikoff shows that they also make a distinction between fast and
slow, and that they even make up calls for novel items. He reports that the
calls contain noun-like information (hawk, dog, and so forth) adjective-like
information (for example, fast and slow), and verb-like information, such as
running and walking.
Is communication a biological process?
Slobodchikoff frames his argument within a concept he calls
the “discourse system.” He asks readers to think of communication ability as
any other biological process, like respiration or digestion. Just as these
processes involve systems of organs, so, too, does discourse. The organs of the
discourse system are those with the ability to detect a signal, to interpret
the signal, and to produce a response. Human language is, in this respect,
identical to any other living being’s communications. And, indeed, human
communication involves more than words. Signals that are conscious and
unconscious, intentional and unintentional, pass between participants in a
conversation. Interestingly, we call this bodylanguage.
Moreover, Slobodchikoff’s research makes one rethink what is
meant by “consciousness.” Language and
consciousness are tied together at a fundamental level in the minds of most
humans. If one thinks in language, it may be hard to imagine that a creature
without it can think. But what if the creature can think, with or without language? When the author speaks to groups about
prairie dogs, talking about their ecological value does not cause people to
think more favorably of them. Instead, he says, "[W]hen I tell people that
prairie dogs have a sophisticated language, opinions change. … It's as if they
suddenly empathize with this creature, not [think of it] as some mindless pest.
" He believes that assuming animals besides humans have language, and a
language that can be understood, is a way to creating greater peace in the
Con Slobodchikoff is currently the director of the Animal
Language Institute and has a website, www.conslobodchikoff.com.
He also has a blog about (regular) dog behavior, aptly called www.dogbehaviorblog.com. Other books
by him include Autobiography of a Poodle
and Prairie Dogs: Communication and
Community in an Animal Society.