Saturday, May 28, 2011

On "Animal Talk" by Tim Friend ****

Tim Friend asks us to think about language as the animals speak it rather than as we speak it. When we do that, the possibility that the animals actually talk to one another seems like a given, and language no longer seems simply like the domain of human beings. Of course, this language takes different forms: dances, smells, songs, barks, howls, clicks, beeps, and a whole lot of other things I've forgotten to list here. In essence, though, animal language, Friend says, comes down to four things, which are shared with us humans: sex, real estate, who's boss, and what's for dinner. Whether one is convinced of Friend's point or not, Animal Talk is a fascinating book on biology and communication in other species.

Each chapter is arranged around a theme that Friend delves into in greater depth using a range of particular creatures to demonstrate the particular kind of communication that he wishes to demonstrate. One chapter focuses on the metal abilities of animals, one on their emotions; others focus on the aforementioned sex, real estate, and leadership. Still others focus on song and dance. Still, the book, while easy to follow, is pings between so many interesting facts that it's hard to summarize.

Cool anecdotes that come to mind include the following: In one experiment with birds in which they were given hooks and sticks to obtain food, the birds found the hooks easiest to work with and so ditched the sticks. However, a dominant bird stole the hook from a less powerful bird, leaving this other bird to have to use sticks. The surprising part? This other bird not only used the stick--it fashioned the stick into a hook by twisting it against a cage of some sort. Friend's point? That animals are capable of some creative thinking.

A newspaper reported that a raven called for a long while in the sky before a woman noticed the raven in her backyard. She also noted then that the raven was looking into the bush, and when she saw what was in the bush, she knew why--it was a wildcat. Luckily, her husband was in close range so that she could call for help. The raven had tried to warn her, she realized. Well, not quite, Friend notes. More likely, the raven had actually brought the wildcat to feast on the woman. The calls had likely been to get the cats attention and to draw it near. Friend's point? Animals can communicate across species and can work together to achieve ends. (In this case, the bird would have been the lucky diner on what was left after the wildcat's meal.)

Other interesting facts revolve around sound and song. The best time for singing, as it turns out, if one is a bird wanting one's mating call to carry far is at dusk and dawn. That's when the sound waves in the air travel farthest due to something to do with the way the atmosphere works--and that's why you hear birds chittering so much at those times, all of them on their own frequency so that they can tune out the frequency of other species and hear only the calls that are to them. But birds aren't the only one's who sing. Whales and other sea creatures do too, but while some terrestrial songs might travel sixty miles, whale songs, buried in sound-conducive water, can travel a thousand or more.

Songs aren't the only way that creatures attract or call for mates, however. Some birds jump in place to attract mates. And some, like the bower bird, build elaborate nests (akin to baskets) and wait for the mate to inspect it. If the nest passes the mate's discerning eye, the bird will get laid.

Friend closes with discussions of talk among sea creatures. It seems that dolphins have unique names (in the form of whistles), just as you and I do, whether that be John or Jacob and Suzie. Dolphins, Friend says, are the only known creatures outside of humans who do this in nature. (That animals know one another uniquely--or are capable of giving names--I think is well established among creatures in captivity, as the bonobos and apes and chimpanzees who learn English show in various experiments, and even, to an extent, as our own pets show when they choose out favorite people or favorite other animal buddies.) What other things dolphins are saying to one another we don't know, since we can only get the broad strokes of what certain things mean. This type of whistle is aggressive, this type is submissive, etc. It could be, Friend implies, that such creatures are saying much more to one another than we realize and likely ever will, since we can't vocalize in their tongue (I wouldn't go so far as to say that Friend is saying they're having talks about the meaning of life, but he does seem to imply these talks might be more than "gimme gimme").

There is also the interesting tale of Hoover, the talking seal. Hoover's mother died when it was a baby, so it was raised in a human household--and as a result, rather than learning seal songs, it learned English. Granted, the English it learned was rudimentary--three sentences to the effect of things like "hiya there" and "what's going on?"--but certainly on a par with parrots. In fact, harbor seals have vocal tracts similar to our own and thus should be able to mimic our speech with a fair amount of ease. Hoover eventually was placed in a marine park, where he tried to mate with other seals. Not knowing how to sing, however, he tried to pick up women with lines like, you got it, "Hiya there!" (He eventually succeeded, and at least one of his descendents speaks "English" also.)

Ultimately, anecdotes like this last one tie in to what seems to be Friend's ultimate point, which is that Chomsky and others who believe language is unique to human beings and represents an evolutionary jump are wrong. Friend sees human language as on a continuum that could have easily developed out of the kinds of languages that other animals speak. It is only our anthropomorphism that causes us to think we are so utterly unique that we must have developed special brains to go along with speech somewhere along the way. For me, however, the book mostly a joy of discovery into the ways that each creature was uniquely created with its own way of communicating.

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