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Animal Communication

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Animal Communication

Throughout this course of study, the concept of language as the demarcation between animals and humans has prevailed. Further, as we have seen in our class readings, many claim that it is through language that our 'consciousness' and 'cognitive' skills are developed. Accordingly, these skills are necessary for us to interpret and conceptualize our world. What this infers is that because we have these skills and the 'brute' animals do not, animals do not possess the ability to analyze or think about their world. When presented in this manner, I was almost convinced that this was a plausible representation of mental development. However, I found that I still had a nagging feeling that it could not be true. Upon further investigation I found that language is by no means the only way to interpret or communicate in the world. The significance of this statement is that if my thesis proves valid the results are twofold: it refutes the behaviorists and Cartesian assertion that language is the boundary that separates animals and humans; and it supports the theory that animals not only have language, but they also posses the ability for cognitive thought.

No one will argue that animals possess sight and auditory abilities. However, the concept that animals have language and are capable of thought for some is a bitter pill to swollow. I believe that they are also capable of thought and even intention. Granted, the development of language is often used as a gauge of mental aptitude in humans: 'Language competence is intimately tied to, or maybe even definitive of, our concept of human mentality' (Atherton and Schwartz, 137). However, while language is an asset which enables people to conceptualize their world, it is by no means a necessity. This is demonstrated by the ability of physically handicapped persons (e.g., the deaf) and mentally handicapped persons (e.g., victims of cerebral palsy) to communicate using symbols. It is also demonstrated by the reliance on kinesics, body language, in young children. Numerous studies attest to the ability of apes and baboons to communicate using symbols and body language. These studies are the first steps in proving the existence of animal mentation.

Griffin argues that many scientists do not accept the notion of animal mentation because of the difficulty of defining abstract concepts such as 'consciousness' and 'mind' (Griffin 163). In reviewing the works of other scholars, Griffin puts forth some working definitions. The concept of mind 'Encompasses sense perception, feeling and emotion, traits of character and personality, and the volitional aspects of human life, as well as the more narrowly intellectual phenomena' (Griffin 163). Consciousness in an entity suggests 'an organism which can have intentions the ability to form a plan, and make a decision to adopt the plan' (Griffin 164). Although these terms are defined by their human references, studies indicate that animals, and even insects, demonstrate emotion, volition, and planning in their daily lives. For example, the communicative dances of honeybees convey multi-level messages that suggest conscious thought and the incorporation of new information (Griffin 178). Similarly, wild vervet monkeys have a system whihc allows them to alert others in their group to potential danger. Diamond states that they 'have a natural form of symbolic communication based on grunts, with slightly different grunts to mean 'leopard,' eagle,' and 'snake.' (Diamond 55). What is significant is that the concept of volition is also evident vervet monkeys when they 'fake' a grunt in order to scatter the other monkeys away from food. Hence, volition and communication should not be considered unique to the human animal.

The ability to manipulate objects and to investigate new information is considered another hallmark of the intellectual development unique to humans. However children, as well as animals are capable of 'learning' these traits equally as well. According to Piaget, the child is like a little scientist who 'almost from birth touches objects, manipulates them, turns them around, looks at them, and in these ways he develops an increasing understanding of their properties' (Wood 35). The understanding comes, in part, from 'referring to preceding observables which are related to the object; or inferring the relations between an action and a reaction, but the input is always from observable material contents' (Piaget 171). All this is accomplished without the benefit of language. It is not necessary to communicate verbally to a child presented with a new object how to incorporate that object into its existing schemes. The ability to incorporate new information is a sign of the child's development of mental aptitude. Further, countless examples of this new information incorporation idea was observed by Savage-Rumbaugh in 'Kanzi'. In particular, the experiment that allowed the apes to see themselves on television. All of the apes responded with individual ideosyncrosities when presented with the seeing themselves and 'knowing' who they were observing on the television. Additionally, Savage-Rumbaugh relates similar events associated with hand mirrors that were given to the apes.

According to Piaget, a child's first communication occurs, not by language, but by 'acted conversations' (Wood 181). Children use a variety of pointing, waving, and gyration motions to indicate what is on their minds. Even after a child makes initial attempts at speech, understanding his or her body language is critical in deciphering the intent of the communication. Wood points out that 'Younger children depend on gestures and bodily movement for a direct statement of their message. With the acquisition of verbal language, gestures and movements take on the different role of complementing the verbal message' (Wood 182). For example a toddler who wants a cookie might stand in front of the cookie jar, point to it, and grunt. The body language reinforces the clarity of the child's message.

That language is not indispensable is demonstrated by the fact that children often comprehend much more than their language skills imply. Jackendoff's studies indicate that 'children have some grasp of the grammatical patterns of the language quite a while before they can use them in their own speech children use this grasp to help them figure out what we're trying to tell them, even when they don't know all the words we've uttered' (Jackendoff 107). Therefore, although a child might have a vocabulary of only fifty words, he or she may be able to comprehend communication on a much higher level. The child maintains a level of 'mental grammar' that, according to Jackendoff, may be completely unconscious (Jackendoff 20).

Similarly, deaf people maintain a form of mental grammar that is incomprehensible to the hearing population. Unfortunately, the inability of the deaf to verbally articulate their mental processes has led to the habitual downgrading of their mental capacities by the hearing population: 'If great flourishes in English are associated with a refined mind, simple, awkward speech and gesticulation are associated with a simple mind. Because language and intellect are so linked in our representation of people (we are surprised to hear a towering intellect expressed--unless by deliberate intent--in a Southern drawl or in ungrammatical sentences), deafness seems a defect of intellect' (Lane 8). The psychology of deafness often reinforces this misconception. Lane cites a 1985 psychiatric journal which printed the following fallacy: 'Profound deafness that occurs prior to the acquisition of verbal language is socially and psychiatrically devastating' (Lane 35). Such statements are evidence of a refusal to validate the uniqueness of the deaf community, its language, and its culture. The traditional attitude of most social scientists toward the deaf community has been one of paternalism. According to Lane, hearing paternalism 'begins with defective perception, because it superimposes its image of the familiar world of hearing people on the unfamiliar world of deaf people' (Lane 37). Quite naturally, with this type of thinking, stereotypes abound.

The language deficiencies of the mentally handicapped likewise prompt stereotypes and misconceptions about their cognitive abilities. Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin cite statistics on the 1.25 million children in the United States who suffer severe speech impairments due to brain deficiencies (Savage-Rumbaugh 183). These children were traditionally given speech therapy, and the failure of many to respond to such therapy was felt to be a result of their diminished mental capacity. Recently, however, such children are being treated using visual-graphic systems capable of teaching symbolic communication. One such study of cerebral palsy patients indicated a remarkable improvement in their social demeanor, work and sentence skills, and ability to take initiative. Another study of symbolic communication therapy in severely mentally retarded children reaped remarkable results: 'Individuals for whom all traditional methods of speech and other language training had failed, had learned to communicate for the first time in their lives, using (a) computer-based keyboard lexigram system' (Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin 193).

The use of a computer-based keyboard lexigram system was used by Savage-Rumbaugh in her studies of symbolic communication in apes. The symbols, or lexigrams, on the keyboard stood for one word. The lexigrams were built from simple geometric forms and subclassified according to three different colors (Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin 182). The system was called LANA (LANguage Analogue), the same name given to the first chimp who used it. Lana, the chimp, was given access to the computer on a 24-hour basis so that she could interact with it even when the researchers were not present. Her activities on the keyboard were stored in memory. Although Lana acquired an impressive, working vocabulary, Savage-Rumbaugh concluded that the chimp's comprehension skills were not highly developed. In contrast, in later work with Kanzi, Savage-Rumbaugh concluded that he indeed possessed certain elements of language, although not a true grammar: 'We demonstrate that an ape, in a communicative environment with humans, develops a productive grammar uncontaminated by imitation, and most interestingly, invents primitive symbol-ordering rules that he has not been exposed to in his symbolic environment' (Savage-Rumbaugh 164).

Savage-Rumbaugh argues that animals have minds because of their self-awareness and their ability to deceive: 'Evidence of self-awareness and of deception therefore suggests that apes think of themselves and other as having knowledge states that differ' (Savage-Rumbaugh 276) . The idea that the knowledge state of one entity differs from another is central to the theory of conscious mental ability. It implies that animals believe that other animals have minds, else why would an animal care about its appearance or about being deceptive? According to Savage-Rumbaugh, 'lies are notorious in the animal kingdom' (Savage-Rumbaugh 272). Animals routinely 'play dead' or imitate the behavioral patterns of other animals in order to elude capture. Studies of baboon and monkeys indicate their readiness to manipulate the action of other members of their species in order to achieve selfish ends (Savage-Rumbaugh 272). This brings to mind the aforementioned vervet monkeys. A related form of deception is the games of pretense that animals play, frequently alone. Savage-Rumbaugh has observed chimps playing with imaginary toys and fleeing from make-believe monsters (Savage-Rumbaugh 277).

Jakendoff cites numerous studies that indicate the ability of apes to use symbols and, although he argues that apes lack a 'mental grammar' on the same level as humans, no convincing research exits that explains why apes have this capacity to acquire symbolized language (Jackendoff 139). Savage-Rumbaugh's observations lead her to believe that 'chimpanzees can acquire language skills spontaneously, through social exposure to a language-rich environment, as human children do.' (Savage-Rumgbaugh and Lewin 177). Some critics suggest that the language tasks given to apes do not require a great deal of intelligence. Others insist that the apes' ability is the result of stimulus-response activity or conditioning. (i.e. the Behaviorists and the Cartesians). As we have already discussed in class, these theories are being hotly debated today, and it appears as though the majority believe that cognitive thought is possible in species other than humans.

Strum reports on Washburn whose research indicates that baboon aggression is linked to the inability of the ape family to develop language skills (Strum 145). In the early development of humans, man acquired a complex social life stemming from his grasp of language. This complex social life 'modified the human body, emotions and brain. In fact, the specific part of the brain that makes language possible could really be considered the 'social brain' functioning as a mediator of social pressures and helping to produce appropriate social actions' (Strum 146). This suggests that the ape family's lack of language skills has stunted the evolution of their cognitive abilities.

Strum disagrees with critics who attribute deficient mental abilities to animals, and cites her studies with baboons as evidence: 'All the evidence pointed to baboons being remarkably clever social sophisticates in all aspects of their lives' (Strum 140). Strum found that baboon society exhibited a stable, female hierarchy unique to the animal world. In studying baboons for the past fifteen years, she has noted 'extraordinary intelligence, planning and insight in their interaction with each other' (Strum 128). Their behavior ranged from comical to aggressive.

The work of Jane Goodall in assessing the intelligence of apes give further credence to the theory of animal mentation. Goodall spent twenty-nine years studying chimpanzee behavior in Africa. She concludes: 'All those who have worked long and closely with chimpanzees have no hesitation in asserting that chimpanzees have emotions similar to those which in ourselves we label pleasure, joy, sorrow, boredom and so on ' (Rollin 271). Goodall approached her work not only as a scientist, but as a human being who felt a moral responsibility to the subjects under study.

Rollin believes that the moral aspect in scientific research involving animals is lacking because scientists are unwilling to admit the existence of animal mentation. They fear being accused of anthropomorphism! I believe that they not only fear anthropomorphism, but they are genuinely afraid of dissipating the thin line that distinguishes the animals from the humans. This concept of fear is further addressed by Dr. Matt Cartmill when he reflects that 'Whether we fear or welcome the dissolution of [the animal human ] boundary (as) the real issue behind much of the recent debate over primate communication, sociobiology, and human evolution.' (excerpt from Human Uniqueness in Paleoanthropology). Although many scientists believe in animal consciousness, they are unwilling to admit it publicly. As one colleague confided to Rollin, 'I believe it at home, but I leave it behind when I go to the lab' (Rollin 268). Belief in animal mentation requires value judgments, something which modern science abhors. For this reason, many in the field are reluctant even to propose study of the concept. Belief in the cognitive abilities of animals is crucial to the issue of animal rights and welfare. Currently, traditional science adopts the viewpoint that animals are incapable of emotions related tot he satisfaction or non-satisfaction of their needs. Therefore, the humane treatment of lab animals is not an issue (ala Descartes) According to Rollin, the only was to convince the skeptics and remedy this mindset is for the study of animal consciousness to become a moral science: Methodologies must be devised which maximize the respect for individual animals acknowledging that without research into animal awareness, moral concern for animals in society must be limited in both scope and detail, and resulting social policy must inevitably be ill-founded' (Rollin 270).

To convince the skeptics in the scientific community, research into animal consciousness must go beyond demonstration of the ability of animals to exhibit language. As Savage-Rumbaugh states, ' As long as behavioral scientist follow in the footsteps of Descartes, assuming that nonhuman animals are merely robots made of meat and bone, they will refuse to give up their paradigms built upon the methods of physics and chemistry.' (Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin 255). Language is based on comprehensive. Comprehensive is exhibited by a wide range of language-related skills. These include the ability to draw inferences, weighing relevancy's, participation in social practices, providing justifications, and using language to guide and plan activities (Atherton and Schwartz 14). Most ape language studies indicate that animals possess the cognitive aptitude to perform all these activities, although not at a level of sophistication that matches human beings. Maybe another way to tackle the question of animal consciousness would be to try to think in terms of the animal mind instead of in terms of the human mind. Either way one looks at this issue, after considering the facts presented in 'Kanzi', there can be no question as to the validity for the argument that many animals possess a level of consciousness and understanding.






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