The Science Behind Talking Parrots – and ‘Texting’ Wolves

Why Animals Talk is published by Viking: Arik Kershenbaum’s account of the wonderfully rich and strange evolved behaviours that constitute animal communication.

by Steven Poole at The Telegraph: If a lion could speak,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “we would not understand him.” This characteristically gnomic utterance has usually been interpreted as meaning that a lion’s experience of the world must be so different from ours that we would have no shared point of reference to communicate about. But Wittgenstein did not know about Alex, the African grey parrot whose famous last words to his trainer in 2007 were: “You be good, I love you. See you tomorrow.” Alex could correctly answer questions about colours and shapes, and ask for particular foods such as bananas. So it seems that some animals can talk after all.

Parrots, of course, don’t speak English in the wild: they must have some latent brain plasticity that can be encouraged to grasp some fundamentals of human language through patient education. More interesting, for the zoologist Arik Kershenbaum, is the wide variety of ways in which other animals communicate with one another, and how we miss the singularity and richness of those alien systems if we compare them disparagingly to human speech.

Take dolphins, for example. Remarkably, they all have names; unique whistles to identify individuals. “As far as we know today,” Kershenbaum writes in Why Animals Talk, “there is no other species in the world – none, bar humans and dolphins – that naturally, and as a part of their regular communication, give themselves names.” We can’t, so far, separate all their other sounds into distinct “words” in a human sense, though they can be trained to associate words with things (such as seaweed). But the author’s wider point is that each animal evolves a style of communication that suits its needs in the wild. Dolphins, like humans, live in large co-operative groups, and so names are useful for them.

A wonderful chapter, meanwhile, is devoted to the howling of wolves (the author’s own speciality), which seems to be a way for pack members to keep in touch with one another over vast territories of forest or snow. For a wolf on its own to howl, Kershenbaum suggests touchingly, is rather like a person texting his friends, “Oh hey, I’m over here.” Distant howls in response keep everyone copacetic.

More here.