BOOKS: Chasing Doctor Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2013:

Chasing Doctor Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals by Con Slobodchikoff. Ph.D. St. Martin’s Press (c/o MacMillan, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010), 2012. 308 pages, hardcover, $25.99.

“My parents left Russia around the time of the Communist Revolution, and made the trek across Siberia to live in exile in China,” opens Con Slobodchikoff. “I was born in Shanghai…Then my family moved to the U.S. and I was enrolled in school in San Francisco.”

Slobodchikoff at age five slowly learned his third of three languages that have not even an alphabet in common, while his teachers presumed that he was stupid, disobedient, or afflicted with a speech impediment.

Along the way, Slobodchikoff gathered insights into the nature of language which later enabled him to decode the communications of species as varied as bees, lizards, crows, field mice, and prairie dogs. Most significantly, Slobodchikoff developed an ear and an instinct for recognizing grammar and vocabulary in what to most listeners seem to be single animal utterances.

Suspecting that animals of differing size, longevity, and metabolism might perceive sound differently, Slobodchikoff and others experimented with recording the cries and songs of many different species, then playing the recording back at varying speeds. Time and again Slobodchikoff et al discovered that each species has a particular communication frequency at which seemingly continuous sounds break down into separate units of meaning, strung together in various ways to communicate more specific information than a single sound could.

In short, Slobodchikoff and col-leagues learned that animals not only share information with each other, but share it in much the same manner as humans. When sounds that are too high and too low to be easily heard by humans are taken into account, even some of the seemingly most silent animals turn out to be saying quite a lot to each other, though not to us. Some animals seem to be overheard and understood to a degree by other species. And some, notably prairie dogs, are verifiably talking about us.

Now a professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University, Slobodchikoff turned relatively late in his academic career to studying Gunnison’s prairie dogs, proposed several times for threatened species status. From his prior studies of linguistic ability in other species, Slobodchikoff soon recognized that Gunnison’s prairie dogs appeared to have a much more sophisticated vocabulary than humans have yet decoded among any other animals, from bats to whales. For instance, Gunnison’s prairie dogs use different warning whistles to alert each other to the presence of each of their major predators: hawks, owls, eagles, badgers, coyotes, dogs, and humans. Gunnison’s prairie dogs are able to indicate the direction from which a predator may be coming, and the speed at which the predator is approaching.

Different evasive action may be taken, depending on the species and behavior of the predator.

Slobodchikoff learned through experimentation that Gunnison’s prairie dogs can also identify approaching humans by the colors of their shirts and can tell if a human has a gun. If five humans walk through a prairie dog colony at once, but only one of the humans is armed, Gunnison’s prairie dogs tell each other which human to most carefully avoid.

Slobodchikoff believes it is likely that other prairie dog species, other rodents, and perhaps many other animals communicate as precisely. We just have not discovered how to eavesdrop on their messages. Slobodchikoff suggests that humans have perhaps erred in looking for use of language first in the species most closely related to us, notably chimpanzees and gorillas, instead of looking first toward the most successful species of other orders, who may have obtained their advantages in part through making better use of language than other species with similar physical attributes.

Linking all of Slobodchikoff’s discoveries is his belief that just as animals have innate physical systems which conduct breathing, blood circulation, digestion, reproduction, sensory perception, and so forth, we have a “discourse system” which facilitates communication with others of our species. We even have a gene, identified as FoxP2, that may occur in all vertebrates and appears to convey communicative ability. More advanced species can communicate more information, but all vertebrates may have communicative ability as an essential function of life. ––Merritt Clifton

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