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Why can’t we talk to the animals?

22 Oct, 2012

We’re publishing the shortlisted entries to the 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. Here, Ben Ambridge describes one theory of why our pets don’t talk back.

Chimpanzee looking tired and sulky. Drawn from life by Mr. Wood.

A sulky-looking chimpanzee

As a child, I suffered from a mild obsession with the film Doctor Dolittle (think Rex Harrison, not Eddie Murphy). At the heart of this obsession was a nagging question: Why couldn’t this be real? After all, most dogs and cats understand their own names and at least a couple of simple commands. And on the speaking front there was, of course, the German parrot who snitched on his owner’s cheating husband by repeating the name of his mistress (Uta). So what’s stopping us? Why can’t we go further and, like the eponymous doctor, hold conversations with our animal cousins?

Fast forward a quarter of a century to 2012 and I’m in Manchester anticipating a public lecture by Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. He has a possible answer to this age-old question. 

Previously it was thought that the magical ability which non-human species lack is the understanding that words can be put together in different orders to express different meanings. There’s a saying in journalism: Dog Bites Man isn’t news, but Man Bites Dog is. It makes sense only because we understand that the order of the words tells us who’s doing the biting and who’s getting bitten.

However, a few species have actually passed this test. On the comprehension front, we have Phoenix and Akeakamai, two dolphins studied at the University of Hawaii, who were taught a language in which the ‘words’ were different whistle sounds played by the trainer (and chosen to approximate dolphins’ own calls). The dolphins understood that, for example, “put the pipe on the hoop” and “put the hoop on the pipe” meant different things and were able to respond accordingly, even when the exact sentence hadn’t been presented before. Some apes, such as Kanzi, a bonobo raised in Atlanta, have passed a similar test although debate continues as to whether or not they can combine words – in this case hand signs – in their own communication (watch the 2011 film Project Nim to see this controversy played out).

The finding that some species do seem to appreciate the powerful combinatorial properties of language serves only to deepen the mystery. If these animals are so smart, why aren’t they explaining what it’s like to be a chimpanzee, or at least politely asking to be let out of the cage? Tomasello’s answer is that what they just don’t seem to get is that language is fundamentally cooperative, almost altruistic, in nature. You understand that, if I say something to you (“Look, there’s your boss”), I’m doing so because I believe you will find it useful or interesting. Tomasello’s big idea is that this idea of doing something for the benefit of someone else is completely alien to other species.

It would be anthropomorphic to call animals “selfish”. It’s not as if chimpanzees consider altruistic possibilities but think, “Sod that, I’m keeping all the bananas for myself”: they simply haven’t evolved in such a way as to be capable of considering an altruistic option in the first place. Evidence of this indifference comes from a number of Tomasello’s own experiments. Many ape and monkey species respond to the presence of a predator by giving an alarm call, often interpreted as an altruistic warning to others. But a study with macaques showed that if a “predator” (a lab technician in a surgical mask) approached a mother’s baby in a different cage, the mother gave no alarm call unless she was also approached.

In another experimental set-up, chimpanzees were given the choice of two ropes to pull: one brought in five grapes for the puller and five for a chimpanzee in an adjacent cage; the other, five for the puller and none for his neighbour. Which option do you think the chimpanzees chose? They pulled at random, neither deliberately feeding the neighbour at no personal cost, nor deliberately depriving him. Again, not selfish; simply indifferent.

But what about apes in the wild? Don’t they share food? Hardly. A chimpanzee will share only in response to a direct threat or harassment, and even when mothers feed their own young, they eat the best bit themselves – the flesh of a banana or nut – and give the infant the peel or the shell.

Thinking about the bigger picture, virtually all of mankind’s greatest achievements, such as science, religion and government, are based fundamentally on cooperation. Or take money: bits of paper and metal and numbers on screens that have meaning only because we have collectively agreed to act as though they do. The implication is that, if Tomasello is right, then cooperation may hold the key to understanding not just language, but also what it means to be human.

Ben Ambridge

Ben Ambridge, shortlisted entrant to the 2012 Science Writing Prize

Ben Ambridge

This is an edited version of Ben’s entry in the category for professional scientists. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Over the next couple of months, we’re publishing the shortlisted essays from the 2012 competition. Read them all, and the 2011 essays, in our archive.

Image credits: Wellcome Library, London (top); Wellcome Images (Ben, left)
35 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    28 Oct, 2012 12:38 am

    Hi. I just found your blog incidentally and I thought you might find this interesting:

    Of course, I’m not a biologist and don’t know what to make of it all!

  2. Shorel permalink
    1 Nov, 2012 3:49 pm

    Religion is not a great achievement, just a sad limitation on our collaboration hardware (or meatware if you prefer).

  3. kaiser permalink
    1 Nov, 2012 5:47 pm

    the idea that cooperation/trust is a big part of what makes humans what they are is not big or new–the question is why. and given our history of slavery, genocide, and racism, and our general submission to authority, you also have to understand what the logical extensions of cooperation/trust lead to.

    let’s not shower ourselves with praise and awe.

  4. 2 Nov, 2012 4:11 pm

    Fascinating. I saw a video somewhere online (wish I could find it) that described the difference between the smartest animals and humans is “asking why”. Fundamentally, chimps tend to just do and give up without questioning larger implications. Perhaps knowing the full extend of a particular animal’s communicative abilities would allow us to talk to them as they would each other?

  5. 7 Nov, 2012 2:23 pm

    I agree with you Kevin, I think we can communicate with animals but it completely depends on it’s communicative abilities whether it be in the form of touch, smell or expressions. Once this has been established and understood we can then learn to communicate with animals and they can begin to understand us.

  6. 7 Nov, 2012 3:13 pm

    This is an awesome, thought-provoking post! When I took a seminar in animal communication during my undergrad at the University of Miami, we read numerous papers about intraspecies communication. As much as I liked the class, I now believe I would have enjoyed it more if we actually discussed interspecies communication.

    Communication (on both the cellular and macroscopic level) plays a significant role in symbiosis. This poorly-understood relationship between radically different creatures is fundamental to the health of the biosphere. It lays the foundation for coral reefs, rainforests, and hydrothermal vent communities. It is also the reason why we have pets.

    Thank you for providing your insight about this phenomenon.

  7. 7 Nov, 2012 3:31 pm

    Very well written and thoughtful…

  8. 7 Nov, 2012 3:40 pm

    I talk to my animals and my patients all the time. Do I think they understand? Some do, some dont. They are kind of like my kids. Sometimes I talk to the monchers and they look at me with their heads cocked and a blank stare just like the dogs :) Do I think they talk back? When one is with animals and spends time just observing them and understanding them, then they certainly talk back in their own way. The expression of the face, the look of the eyes, the movement of the tail or feet. There are many ways they talk that is just as meaningful as words if one cares to listen!

    • 8 Nov, 2012 5:00 am

      I completely agree with you. I spend so much time with my 2 year-old Dane and ever since he was a baby I made sure to speak to him in complete sentences, not just simple commands and I am amazed at times by how intelligent he is! Does he understand everything I say? Probably not. But i like to think we understand each other rather well. I’ve become aware of his wants and needs by observing him closely and learning his body language, face expressions, etc. like you said.

  9. 7 Nov, 2012 4:45 pm

    Hi, great posts, one of my favourite topics is animal intelligence :) I must admit though asking a chimpanzee even if they where capable of answering would be a hard question. If I where asked what its like to be human I would have no idea what to say, Ive been human all my life and dont really know any different, also if the chimpanzee really wanted to be let out the cage i’m sure it you would know about it. It’s probably learnt when it will be let out and asking gets doesn’t get anywhere so why bother.
    Some people expect way too much from animals even when their doing amazing things already, like dolphins and sea lions helping out the army!!!!

    Anyway thats my rant over lol

    Great post keep them coming :)

  10. 7 Nov, 2012 5:38 pm

    Reblogged this on IM Sirius.

  11. 7 Nov, 2012 6:20 pm

    Interesting read. Thumbs up!

  12. 7 Nov, 2012 7:39 pm

    I know why pets don’t talk back in my house. There are too many women, including myself that do all the talking. Thanks for sharing.

  13. 7 Nov, 2012 7:48 pm

    I guess the answer is (facetiously) we can always talk to animals, what/or how they understand is something else. Very interesting discussion regardless. Even some humans I hear don’t seem to understand each other when speaking the same language…! I love Gary Larsons take on the subject…

  14. 7 Nov, 2012 7:52 pm

    Great post! So glad I found this blog! Congrats!

  15. 7 Nov, 2012 11:37 pm

    Interesting read. Thank you. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed

  16. 7 Nov, 2012 11:48 pm

    Really great post. Just wanted to share something I have always loved dogs and had many of them. I adopted an eight month old mixed breed of Pekingnese and Golden Retriever from an ad in the paper. Since I live alone I always talk to him and play with the dog. This dog, I have trained 7 tricks in an hour. I doubted him that he would remember them after that hour session of training. Later realized that he knows all the tricks. He also understands when I do not want to play or when the bag of treats are empty. When I was crying for some stupid reason he also knew that I needed some comfort by going near and letting me hug him. I know I may be over thinking it but this dog does let me know when he does not want to be bothered or touched. Yeah I may be over thinking it ha ha ha ha!

  17. 8 Nov, 2012 2:40 am

    Wow, what a beautifully written post! So interesting too

  18. 8 Nov, 2012 3:27 am

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!!

  19. 8 Nov, 2012 3:59 pm

    I used to watch a show called Martha Speaks, it was about a dog that accidentally ate a bowl of alphabet soup and all the letters went to her brain instead of her stomach. I was then mildly obsessed with getting my dog to talk using alphabet soup. Funny how the child’s brain works. Very interesting post! I enjoyed it.

  20. 8 Nov, 2012 4:34 pm

    Interesting post! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  21. 8 Nov, 2012 6:45 pm

    One of the first things that a good Service Dog trainer warns against is anthropomorphism. While my Service Dog, Bright, is happy to carry out whatever command I give her, it’s really because the task is enjoyable and she consistently gets a reward for it. The sequence isn’t “Alex gives command – Bright contemplates and decides she’d like to help me out – Alex says thank you”; it’s more like “Alex gives command – Bright’s been rewarded before and associates her own compliance with pleasure – Alex follows up compliance with praise to reinforce that association.”

    While I’d love to say that Bright works for me because she likes to help, I don’t think she likes or dislikes helping any more than my wheelchair does.

  22. brianhickey75 permalink
    8 Nov, 2012 6:57 pm

    Have you ever thought about the way a dog will look up at you, straight into your eyes and with their tail wagging show all the love in the world .
    Is this not communicating?

  23. Marcella Rousseau permalink
    11 Nov, 2012 12:54 am

    I don’t think we give animals enough credit. I think they’re smarter than we are.

  24. shuichill permalink
    12 Nov, 2012 5:03 am

    Every time I hear questions around the topic of talking to animals I always think about what Ricky Gervais said “Even if we could talk to animals that doesn’t mean we would be able to comprehend them” (not sure if he was the first to say this). Which makes perfect since, the animal kingdom is much different for our everyday life and even in our day to day problems occur among the people who live in the same state who speak different languages who try to communicate. Yes, we are able to get the general point across but from personal experience I know that some words can not be translated. So I’m sure if we could speak to animals they to would have there own untranslated words. But in times where words fail we can establish an emotional connection, somewhat in the way our pets know how we’re feeling when our mood changes. Through emotion we learn to relate and express feeling without words which in my opinion is communicating.

  25. 14 Nov, 2012 4:10 am

    Interesting post, I liked it.

  26. 15 Nov, 2012 4:48 pm

    What a great post! So is it only smart animals like dolphins and abe’s who apply to this?
    You should have a look at this video

  27. 31 Aug, 2014 7:48 pm

    Reblogged this on Psy-Q and commented:
    The article that started Psy-Q…

  28. 16 Apr, 2015 11:49 am

    Are you open to other possibilities? Have you heard what animal communicators do? Using a form of telepathy they can connect to an animal.


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