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