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Thursday, August 1, 2019

Animal sound communication, human language, and perspectivism

          I return to the question of animal sound communication, which I wrote about in January of this year. Animals—humans included—communicate with one another in song, speech, and various in-between modes such as chant. Animals also communicate by manipulating objects to make sounds, whether beavers slapping the water with their tails or humans playing musical instruments. Because animal communication is necessary for survival, it is necessary for sustainability of life as we know it on planet Earth. Sound, of course, is one of the principal ways in which animals communicate with one another.
         Among the questions that interest scientists about nonhuman animal sound communication are, first of all, whether species’ communication in sound is purely functional, or whether it has an aesthetic component. Do animals always make sounds for a practical purpose, in other words, or might they do it for pleasure, as humans do? Might some of their practical sounds, such as birdsong, offer pleasure as well as having functions such as locating oneself to one’s mate? A second question is whether animal sounds constitute language. That is, do they exhibit the structural and functional characteristics of what we know as language, even if in some simple stage? Or are their sounds merely signals? Songbirds, humpback whales, chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins seem to be good test cases for language. All of them communicate with a variety of complex sounds; in terms of their structure, could they constitute a language? Scientists do not agree on the answer. Generally speaking, the evolutionary biologists who study animal behavior and sound communication favor the idea that nonhuman animal sounds, no matter how complex they are in structure, constitute signals, stimuli that result in automatic responses in the listening animal. At the same time, many scientists are conducting experiments to see if that is really true, or if the complex sounds of some species could be said to constitute anything resembling a language, and whether there is any evidence suggesting that it also has an aesthetic component.
         Recently I came upon an educational website that pursued differences between human and animal communication. The linked to a lecture by a professor at the Leiden University Center for Linguistics, and then examined the supposed differences between human and nonhuman animal communication. As I read through these differences, I realized that some of the evidence from birdsong and humpback whale song casts doubt on those claims for difference, or at least for a sharp dividing line between human and nonhuman.
Black-capped chickadee. Photo by Ryan Hodnett
         For example, humans are said to be able to string sounds together in an infinite number of ways to create meaning via words and sentences, and animals are said not to communicate by arranging sounds in this way. And yet there is scientific evidence that chickadees string together phonemes in a simple manner to indicate, for example, not only that there is a danger from a nearby predator, but also how great is that danger. Humpback whales, also, have been observed to string together sounds in different ways to indicate different meanings. Part of the difficulty here, it would seem, is that humans do not understand animal language. For another example, humans are said to be able to invent new words easily, whereas animals must evolve in order for their signals to change. But the invention of new words and their addition to human language proceeds slowly, whereas animals change their signs before they evolve, and then evolution selects those whose signs are most suitable for survival. A few songbirds, for example, who are permanent residents near highways change the pitch range of their songs to avoid traffic noise, and only then does natural selection favor those birds that have changed their songs, resulting in a higher percentage of birds that have adapted and that can, presumably, survive better. Experiments have shown that this evolution is rapid.
         A couple of other differences turn out to have exceptions, also. It is said that humans acquire language culturally, by learning, whereas animal communication is inborn and cannot be learned. But that isn’t so. Songbirds raised by foster parents of another species learn to sing their foster parents’ songs. Another difference discussed on the website is arbitrariness: human language is symbolic and filled with ideas, whereas animal communication is said not to be symbolic. The jury is still out on that one, but one wonders how we would be able to recognize whether animal communication was symbolic when we don’t understand their sounds in the same way they do. In other words, what we conclude by observation to be no more than stimulus and response may in fact be arbitrary to some extent on account of its complexity, or on account of factors that we ordinarily wouldn’t take into consideration, such as the time of day or night of the utterance, its tempo, how frequently it is repeated, and so on.
         For centuries scientists have claimed that only human beings have language, but it no longer certain that this is true. Instead, it’s possible that language is something best understood to exist on a continuum of development, with humans having a more fully developed language while some other animals exhibit it at an earlier stage of development. If animals exist on an evolutionary continuum, it makes some sense to think of language in this way. Obviously, humans have had the capacity to develop language into a very sophisticated communications tool, and beyond that into an artistic expression with aesthetic qualities. At the same time, we should not be too hasty in assuming that animals communicate only by means of signals that act as stimuli to effect responses. After all, scientists do not know what it is like to communicate as a whale or a dolphin or an elephant.
         On the other hand, many Amerindian indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledges take a very different approach to animals and animal sound communication: perspectivism and multinaturalism. I’ve written about this to some extent in a completed chapter for an as-yet-unpublished book edited by Harris Berger, one that has been in the making for a decade or so: the "Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Ethnomusicology." In it, I discuss evidence for expressive culture among animals. From a perspectivist viewpoint, animals have intentionality, consciousness, reflective thought, experience, aesthetics, language, and expressive culture because what it is like to communicate as a whale or dolphin or elephant from the animal’s point of view is exactly the same as what it is like to communicate as a human because animals think of themselves as humans.