“Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far.” – Swami Vivekananda
Language, it is often claimed, sets humans apart from other species. Our extensive development and application of language appear to be unmatched by any single other species. However, elements of language are found in all sorts of species. Whenever a new example is discovered (for example, monkeys employing syntax to change the meaning of their calls or dolphins having unique identifying whistles – in other words, names), critics scrabble for the remaining characteristics of language, such as the use of metaphors, that remain uniquely human (see here for an overview of the current state of play). It is as if there is a fear that humans will be outshone by another species or – perhaps the more likely idea – a fear that humans aren’t as unique as they, we, like to think.
I think this is an overreaction. Of course we are unique; as you may have surmised from the previous post, we recognise uniqueness in all species and put them in little boxes accordingly. It doesn’t bother us that many animals with wings fly (some better than others) or that predators often share highly developed senses (such as sight in the hawk, or scent in the wolf). Yet it apparently is a problem that other social species, particularly, have developed similar ways of communicating. I think the problem lies in a mistaken connection between uniqueness and superiority, a belief that because humans are ‘best at language’, we win a prize somehow. This kind of thinking is in line with the incorrect interpretation of Darwinian theory that surmises that we are all evolving towards some ideal, perfect being; that evolution is a race that humans are winning. Perhaps language is the clinging point because, let’s face it, such superiority is not immediately obvious in other aspects of life; we are certainly not adept at flying without some form of jet propulsion and our senses, though well rounded, are not at all exceptional.
We are great communicators though, no doubt about it, and many animals (normally those less reliant on social interaction for survival than ourselves) are not. Yet all this focus on who does and who does not have language, and how language and communication are not the same thing, can overshadow what I think is a far more interesting topic; that, language or not, many species (ourselves included) are highly capable of communicating between species and across huge chasms of difference in physiology, genetics and worldview. When we speak of communicating with animals, you might immediately think of Dr Dolittle or Mr Ed… but that’s reverting to language again. Communication has many forms, and the key to it, I believe, is mutual understanding and sharing of meaning.
I am now going to stop waffling and post a (lighthearted) video that I have made with the help of the Crow and our Masked Bandits, who are going to demonstrate their wonderful ability to make their feelings and intentions known. They can do it better than I could ever explain here, even with all the attributes of language at my disposal, and they can do it without saying a single word.
A note on this video: although these two are trained to do certain things, such as come to their names, in these clips they are not responding to verbal or visual cues from us. Particularly interesting (from an ethologist’s point of view) is the ‘shoulder tug’ that our Black Masked Bandit performs when he wants an appendage to become a bridge. This is entirely self-taught; in fact, he has trained us to respond to his commands, showing just where the power lies here!
Please contact me using the comments or ‘Contact Battfink’ page if you have any questions or comments about what’s going on in the video, or what I’ve said above. I’d also appreciate some feedback, positive or negative, on the blog so far; so please comment or contact me, if you can spare the time, to let me know your thoughts or requests for future posts.