Talk to the Animals

I want to talk to the animals and understand when they talk back. I especially want to speak to the local fish crows in my area, though I’d also be fine chatting with blue jays or grackles, mockingbirds or cardinals. And, although I know this all sounds like fanciful Dr. Doolittle nonsense, I think that we are getting a lot closer to this ideal than most people imagine.

Chatty Chimps

Consider a new study with the not-so-sexy title “Call combinations and compositional processing in wild chimpanzees.” The authors write that the groups of chimps they studied use combinations of calls when they see snakes. When the researchers play those sounds back on devices, the chimps react more strongly to the combined calls than they do single, independent calls.

The chimps seem to be using a “compositional syntactic-like structure, where the meaning of the call combination is derived from the meaning of its parts.” In other words, they’re stringing together various sounds to communicate to each other about things happening in their neighborhood.

This means, of course, our ancestors might have been stringing together a combination of calls well before they evolved into modern human beings. That is, “cognitive building-blocks facilitating syntax may have been present in our last common ancestor with chimpanzees.”

We not only see signs of abstract vocal communication among chimps, we also see signs of syntax, which is the arrangement of words to create meaning. Dare we call this language?

I’m betting linguistics legend Noam Chomsky is not pleased by such claims. He has long asserted that humans are the only animals with true language. (He’s not too fond of the new AIs, either.)

Maybe Chomsky will ultimately be proven correct, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. These days, humanity is learning more and more about how sophisticated animal communications are. Whether we can call these “languages” or not is debatable, but let’s have a look at some other specific examples.

Waggling Bees

We’re learning that even some insects have sophisticated abilities to communicate abstract knowledge, with perhaps the most famous example being honeybees. NOVA reports, “Honeybees have evolved an extraordinary form of communication known as the ‘waggle’ dance. It is highly symbolic, separated as it is in both time and space from the activity it grew out of (discovering a nectar source) and the activity it will spur on (getting other bees to go to that nectar source). A bee performs the waggle dance when she wants to inform other bees of a nectar source she has found.”

Deep and Digital Listening

Karen Bakker, a professor at the University of British Columbia and a fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, states, “[I]f we combine digital listening—which is opening up vast new worlds of nonhuman sound and decoding that sound with artificial intelligence—with deep listening [which means listening carefully to natural sounds], I believe that we are on the brink of two important discoveries. The first is language in nonhumans…. The second is: I believe we’re at the brink of interspecies communication.”

A Combination of Light-weight Recorders and Deep Learning

Two things are happening. First, scientists are collecting vast amounts of animal sound and video via small, light-weight recording devices. Second, they are running all that sound through deep-learning-based algorithms that correlate specific sounds with specific social interactions.

Babbling Bats

Bakker points to the example of bats. Using the combination of recording devices and deep learning, a group of researchers “were able to classify the majority of bats’ sounds.” They found that the bats have much more complex communications than anyone previously thought. She states:

Bats argue over food; they distinguish between genders when they communicate with one another; they have individual names, or “signature calls.” Mother bats speak to their babies in an equivalent of “motherese.” But whereas human mothers raise the pitch of their voices when talking to babies, mother bats lower the pitch—which elicits a babble response in the babies that learn to “speak” specific words or referential signals as they grow up. So bats engage in vocal learning.

All that is cool beyond, well, words. But it gets even better because we can use computers to talk back to the bats. Once we understand how the bats are communicating and what they’re “saying,” we can send them messages using their own sounds and frequencies.

Lovesongs from Planet Earth

Bakker believes we’re developing something like “a planetary-scale hearing aid that enables us to listen anew with both our prosthetically enhanced ears and our imagination.” So, it’s not just a matter of opening our ears but our minds. We’re increasingly able to bridge the communication gaps between humans and nonhumans. She concludes, “It’s also opening up new ways to think about conservation and our relationship to the planet. It’s pretty profound.”

Profound indeed. I’m a sucker for a good lovesong. Now we can finally hear and begin to understand as mother bats teach their children to vocalize, as honeybees send their sisters nectar-laden messages, and as chimp families strive to protect one another from dangers lurking in the forest. These are lovesongs from the planet. Maybe one day they’ll be enough to drown out the cacophonies of culture war clatter and outrage coming from the homo sapiens crowd. I like to think so.

Featured image by Johannes Siberechts (1627–circa 1703), Saint Francis Preaching to the Animals

Talking Drums and the Depths of Human Ignorance

When I first heard of the talking drums, it make me think of how little we know about our fellow human beings and about the other citizens of the planet as well.

It’s a small but genuine annoyance. I’ll be listening some “expert,” often a professor, being interviewed for a radio show or podcast. If the idea of cognition comes up, they’ll state as a fact that humans are far more intelligent than any other animal on the planet. And, almost inevitably, one piece of evidence they’ll point to is communication. There’s the assumed inability of other animals to communicate with as much sophistication as we do.

Now, they might be right about these things, though obviously we’d need to define intelligence and communication to even establish a working hypotheses. What irritates me, though, is the certainty with which they make their claims. In truth, we just don’t know how we stack up in the animal kingdom because we still live in such a deep state of ignorance about our fellow creatures.

The Talking Drums

When I hear such claims, I think about the talking drums. For hundreds of years, certain African cultures were able to communicate effectively across vast distances. They did this right beneath the noses and within the hearing of ignorant, superior-feeling Europeans.

In his book The Information, James Gleick lays out the story of the talking drums in Chapter One. Via drums, certain African peoples were able to quickly communicate detailed and nuanced messages over long distances well before Europeans acquired comparable technologies. At least as far back as the 1700s, these African peoples were able to relay messages from village to village, messages that “could rumble a hundred miles or more in a matter of an hour…. Here was a messaging system that outpaced the best couriers, the fastest horses on good roads with say stations and relays.”

It was only in the 19th century that the missionary Roger T. Clarke recognized that “the signals represent the tones of the syllables of conventional phrases of a traditional and highly poetic character.” Because many African languages are tonal in the same way Chinese is, the pitch is crucial in determining the meaning of a particular word. What the drums allowed these peoples to do was communicate complex messages using tones rather than vowels or consonants.

Using low tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses. Extra phrases are added to each short “word” beaten on the drums. These extra phrases would be be redundant in speech, but they can provide context to the core drum signal.

Enormous Chasms

The technology and innovativeness of the talking drums is amazing, of course, but what’s especially startling is the centuries-long depth of European ignorance about the technology. Even once some Europeans admitted that actual information was being communicated across vast distances, they could not fathom how.

Why? Sure, racism no doubt played a part. But the larger truth is that they simply didn’t have enough information and wisdom to figure it out. That is despite the fact that we are talking about members of the same species and, indeed, a species with very little genetic diversity.

Here’s how the Smithsonian Institution reports on this lack of diversity:

[C]ompared with many other mammalian species, humans are genetically far less diverse – a counterintuitive finding, given our large population and worldwide distribution. For example, the subspecies of the chimpanzee that lives just in central Africa, Pan troglodytes troglodytes, has higher levels of diversity than do humans globally, and the genetic differentiation between the western (P. t. verus) and central (P. t. troglodytes) subspecies of chimpanzees is much greater than that between human populations.

On average, any two members of our species differ at about 1 in 1,000 DNA base pairs (0.1%). This suggests that we’re a relatively new species and that at one time our entire population was very small, at around 10,000 or so breeding individuals.

For Europeans to remain so ignorant about a technology created by other members of their own barely diversified species tells us how truly awful we are at understanding the communication capabilities of others. Now add in the exponentially higher levels of genetic diversity between species. For example, the last known common ancestor between whales and human existed about 97 million years ago. How about the last known ancestor between birds and humans? About 300 million years ago.

These timescales represent enormous genetic chasms that we are not remotely capable of bridging at the moment. We are still in the dark ages of understanding animal cognition and communication. So far, our most successful way of communicating with other animals is by teaching them our languages. So now we have chimpanzees using sign language and parrots imitating our speech patterns.  African Grey parrots, for example, can learn up to 1,000 words that they can use in context.

Yet, when these species do not use human language as well as humans, we consider them inferior.

If We’re So Bloody Bright…

But if we as a species are so intelligent, why aren’t we using their means of communication? I’m not suggesting that other animals use words, symbols and grammar the way humans do. But communicate they do. I live in Florida, which is basically a suburbanized rainforest, and have become familiar with the calls of various birds, tropical and otherwise. One of the more common local denizens is the fish crow. I hear crows that are perched blocks away from one another do calls and responses. The calls vary considerably even to my ignorant, human ears, and there are probably countless nuances I’m missing.

Are they speaking a “language”? I don’t know, but it seems highly unlikely they’re expending all the vocal and cognitive energy for no reason. Their vocalizations mean something, even if we can’t grasp what.

Inevitably, humans think all animal communication is about food, sex and territory. But that’s just a guess on our part. We assume that their vocalizations are otherwise meaningless just as many Europeans assumed the talking drums were mostly meaningless noise. In short, we’re human-centric bigots.

Consider the songs of the humpback whales. These are extremely complex vocalizations that can be registered over vast distances. Indeed, scientists estimate that whales’ low frequency sounds can travel up to 10,000 miles! Yet, we’re only guessing about why males engage in such “songs.” For all we know, they’re passing along arcane mathematical conceits that would put our human Fields Medal winners to shame.

On Human Ignorance

The point is that we continue to live in a state of deep ignorance when it comes to other our fellow creatures. That’s okay as long as we remain humble, but we humility is not what people do best. We assume we are far more intelligent and/or far better communicators than are other species.

Yet, consider the counterevidence. Just look the various environmental, political and even nuclear crises in which we conflict-loving primates are so dangerously enmeshed. It hardly seems like intelligence. Maybe the whales and parrots are really discussing what incapable morons humans are compared to themselves. With that, mind you, it would be hard to argue.

Featured image from Mplanetech. 11 January 2017