Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Talking to the animals

Language is defined as "arbitrary symbolic communication."  The "symbolic" part is because the word (either spoken or written) for a concept is representative of the concept itself, and "arbitrary" because with the exception of onomatopoeic words like bang and swish there is no logical connection between the word and the concept itself.  (For example, the English word dog and the French word chien both have the same referent, but other than learned association there's nothing especially doggy about either word.)

It's been an argument of long standing whether any other animal species have true language.  A 2006 paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America strongly suggests that whales have one of the most characteristic features of language -- syntax, the way words are put together to form meaningful sentences.  (What whale songs actually mean is still a matter of conjecture.)  A lot of animal sounds, such as bird songs and dogs barking, are dismissed as "non-linguistic vocalization" -- they are communication, but lack the "arbitrary symbolic" part of the definition of language.

Myself, I wonder.  I can tell when I hear my dog barking or growling whether he:
  1. is playing;
  2. sees a vicious intruder, like the UPS man;
  3. sees an even more vicious intruder, like a chipmunk;
  4. sees or hears my wife driving up;
  5. is excited because he sees me or my wife get the ball and he knows he's going to get to play fetch, which is his most favorite thing ever;
  6. is bored; or
  7. wants to come inside because it's raining and he doesn't like getting his little toesies wet.  (He's just that tough.)

Each of those different-toned barks is completely distinct, and certainly they're arbitrary in that the connection between the tone and what it's communicating really has no logic to it.  (An exception is that the "excited bark" and "bored bark" are clearly different in volume and energy level, which you could argue isn't arbitrary.)

Even dog lovers will admit, however, that the set of concepts expressed by barking or growling is fairly limited.  So if you want to call it language, it's pretty rudimentary.  The situation becomes blurrier, however, with animals with a rich vocal repertoire, like parrots and dolphins.  And our sense that we're the only ones with true language was dealt another blow by a study released this week from the University of Zurich showing that primates called common marmosets not only speak regional dialects, when individuals are moved to a different region they learn -- and begin to use -- the dialect of the group they've joined.

"We could clearly show that the dialects of common marmosets are learned socially," said anthropologist Yvonne Z├╝rcher, who co-authored the study.  "If their dialects were genetically determined, moving to a new place wouldn’t cause any change in calls.  The changes can’t be explained by differences in the environment, either."

Which seems to meet the characteristic of arbitrariness.

Again, I'm not trying to imply that marmosets have language in the same sense we do; whatever they're saying, it's unlikely that it has the richness and flexibility of human language.  But the black-and-white, "we have language and no one else does" attitude that has been prevalent for as long as the question has been considered may turn out to be as inaccurate as the "human vs. animal" distinction I still hear students voicing.  The truth is, vocal communication -- from the simplest (such as the hissing of a snake) to the most complex known (human language) -- is a continuum, just as are complexity, intelligence, emotional capacity, and anything else you might think separates us from the rest of Kingdom Animalia.

Which I think is pretty cool.

In any case, I better wrap this up, because Guinness is barking.  I know it's time to play ball.  He just told me so.


In keeping with Monday's post, this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about one of the most enigmatic figures in mathematics; the Indian prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan.  Ramanujan was remarkable not only for his adeptness in handling numbers, but for his insight; one of his most famous moments was the discovery of "taxicab numbers" (I'll leave you to read the book to find out why they're called that), which are numbers that are expressible as the sum of two cubes, two different ways.

For example, 1,729 is the sum of 1 cubed and 12 cubed; it's also the sum of 9 cubed and 10 cubed.

What's fascinating about Ramanujan is that when he discovered this, it just leapt out at him.  He looked at 1,729 and immediately recognized that it had this odd property.  When he shared it with a friend, he was kind of amazed that the friend didn't jump to the same realization.

"How did you know that?" the friend asked.

Ramanujan shrugged.  "It was obvious."

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel is the story of Ramanujan, whose life ended from tuberculosis at the young age of 32.  It's a brilliant, intriguing, and deeply perplexing book, looking at the mind of a savant -- someone who is so much better than most of us at a particular subject that it's hard even to conceive.  But Kanigel doesn't just hold up Ramanujan as some kind of odd specimen; he looks at the human side of a man whose phenomenal abilities put him in a class by himself.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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