Chasing Doctor Dolittle: The Minutes of a Meeting of Minds

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Dr. Slobodchikoff is well known for his research with prairie dogs.

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.

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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 world.

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.

--Bethany Williams