Animal speech

I know that animals vocalize but do they have an internal language? Something like what you experience now as you read this? Since animals don’t write articles in which they wonder about speech in humans, we can only infer from observation.

Koko jas sign language

Koko has sign language

Getting inside the heads of animals requires time and patience. Francine “Penny” Patterson has spent years in a California zoo teaching Koko, a gorilla, sign language. Koko can name hundreds of objects.

Still, gorillas don’t talk to each other. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth notes: “Gorillas grumble in the presence of large amounts of food, they grunt as they approach one another or separate from their young, they make copulatory grunts, and they chuckle when they play (Scientific American January 1, 2016).” The vocalizations that gorillas make are no more complex than their visual displays. They telegraph social status and possible behavior, but that is all.

Vervet monkeys do better. They make distinct predator alarm calls for “eagle,” “snake” and “leopard.” Unlike Koko, no human taught Vervets these “words.”   Even then, Vervets don’t have conversations about the big snake they saw yesterday.

Animals appear to lack abstract reasoning: the ability to transfer knowledge from a one situation to one that hasn’t yet happened.

Crows seem to have abstract reasoning. They will drop walnuts to a hard surface and crack them open. They seem to be thinking “if I drop this nut from high enough to the hard concrete sidewalk, it will break open.”

A more likely explanation involves an observation about ourselves than about animals. We tend to anthropomorphize: to view the world of animals through our own eyes. We visualize them with human-like language and intentions.

Sara Shettleworth, cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto says that “proximate cause” is a better explanation. In biology, proximate cause is the most immediate cause of an event. The crow didn’t drop the walnut because it was thinking about the hardness of nuts relative to the sidewalk, the distance it had to fall, and the consequences of the impact.  No, the bird’s physiological state was a key factor. Hunger linked to the walnuts and hard surfaces.

“That is, physiology that encourages conditioned food-procurement behavior based on past success is what causes a crow to fly above hard surfaces and drop nuts, not the crow’s logic about how to best satiate its hunger,” explains Dunsworth. If the crow hadn’t accidently seen how well the technique worked, it wouldn’t have come up with the behaviour based on analysis.

It’s an honest mistake. If we have abstract reasoning, our natural inclination is that animals do: we project our view of reality on to the world.

I don’t mean to suggest that human animals are superior, just different. The mental baggage we carry comes at a cost. It may help us construct our world to tell ourselves: “Take this saw and make a table.” But those voices can also appear to be external and malicious, as in schizophrenia, and tell us: “Take that screwdriver and stab the devil Fred through the heart” –an internal voice I’m quite sure animals don’t hear.