Why can’t we talk to the animals?
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.
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.
This is an edited version of Ben’s entry in the category for professional scientists. Views expressed are the author’s own.
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.