Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Animal Language for Dummies

A conversation with a friend on Monday sparked some thinking about animal communication - and as serendipity does sometimes come into play, it so happens that in Philosophical Foundations today the subject of Alex the talking parrot came up.

There's this parrot, you see, that can identify things by category. He's learned to say tens of words, and he can combine them in ways that shows he has a basic grasp of category. For example, you can ask him "What color three-corner?" and show him a red square and a green triangle, and he will reply "green." Meaning he knows numbers, and he knows that the words "red" and "green" belong to the category "color," he knows that "what" introduces a question, and he can correctly determine that you are asking about the color property of the triangle (and not the square) and give you the answer you want. He's able to express desires - saying things like "want grape." And apparently he gets angry if you give him something that's not a grape when he asks for a grape. In other words, he knows that you understand him and have deliberately not complied with his instructions.

So what's so special about this? Well, that's the interesting thing. I can't really think of why it should be special. And yet, things like this have a way of shocking people.

Take my friend, for example. On Monday, he was laughing because he nearly made someone in our department cry when he told her her cat didn't have feelings. I was apparently supposed to laugh along with this. Now don't get me wrong - I love watching nature-lovers get emotional about their silly imaginary crap as much as the next guy. But it seems to me simply obvious that cats have emotions. How could anyone think otherwise? Cats sulk, they play, they get angry. There are any number of behaviors my cat exhibits that seem completely unnecessary in the strictly survivalist sense that I can't really explain without reference to emotion.

So this exchange is really surprising in two ways. First of all, it's surprising that anyone would actually come to tears over this. C'mon - it's like saying the sun doesn't shine. It's so obviously true that cats have emotions, that if the friend had said this to me I would have just shrugged it off. Sort of like believing that stepping on a crack will break your mother's back. If he wants to invent this idea that cats don't feel, that's his business, I guess. Certainly nothing for me to cry about (though I might snicker a bit). Second, it's surprising that there are people who think that animals - even animals like cats and dogs - really are "just machines."

Another friend of mine is an animal rights activist and vegetarian, and she can't eat fish because she can't rule out that fish might have emotions. Here again - I guess I don't know for certain that they don't, but it's a good guess they don't. I've never seen any behavior from your basic tank fish that needs emotion as an explanation, and I certainly don't think I could have an emotional relationship with a fish the way I have with my cat. But she argues that there are some studies that show that fish feel "pain," and "it's not so far from pain to emotion."

That seems to me somewhat circular. A purely operative definition of "pain" might be that the creature in question avoids certain negative stimuli. Maybe there are also certain nerve responses that are associated with "pain," I dunno. But "pain" is surely a particular kind of internal experience in addition to simply being a motivation to avoid a stimulus, no? I avoid certain people because they're tedious, after all, but I would only jokingly describe the experience of talking to them as "painful." I think we can really only talk about something feeling "pain" after we've already established that it has a certain prerequisite emotional capacity. In short, this animal-rights activist's conclusion that fish might just maybe have emotions depends on some pretty tenuous word associations. It's a category mistake, really.

What's common to all of this is that lots of people believe what they want to believe about animals. The first friend - the one who thinks cats can't feel - likes to think of himself as tough and unsentimental. Since people have sentimental attachments to their pets, it's something he avoids. But I think his position is unsustainable given some of his other beliefs - particularly the fact that he's vehemently anti-religious and definitely believes in Evolution over Creationism.

I don't think that anyone can, in good faith, believe in evolution and ruleout that animals have emotions. Belief in evolution commits you to the idea that humans are animals like any other. There are some special human traits to be sure, and one can definitely argue that humans are orders of magnitude more cognitively advanced than other animals - fine. But if you believe in evolution, you also believe that human cognitive capacity came about through slow, incremental changes in the genetic makeup of creatures that were once essentially the same as modern apes. Those apes, in turn, came from incremental changes to other creatures, etc. etc. all the way back to the first single-celled organisms. Differences between humans and other mammals, then, will more often than not be "along a continuum" than "in kind."

Which brings me back to the parrot. Why does it shock anyone that parrots can identify basic useful categories? Surely no one believes that parrots can't see colors or make out shapes? In the wild, after all, they are able to find food and successfully navigate around obstacles. It's hard to imagine that these tasks have nothing to do with correct perception of shape or color! What's supposedly so shocking is that the parrot learns to associate words with these concepts - but again I don't see why that's a stunner. Over the course of its life the parrot learns to associate certain colors and shapes with food and others with predators - why can't it associate them with the production of sounds as well? The article (linked above) makes clear that a lot of training was necessary to get the parrot to understand these things. And that's probably as it should be. Parrots as a species don't really use language, after all. But that doesn't mean they can't learn some basic associations. There's nothing in evolution that suggests humans should play basketball, for example - and yet we do, with proper training.

This line from the article strikes me as being one of the sanest things I've heard on this subject:

What the data suggest to me is that if one starts with a brain of a certain complexity and gives it enough social and ecological support, that brain will develop at least the building blocks of a complex communication system.

Emphasis on the "at least the building blocks." One thing Chomsky said on this struck me as insightful. I don't have a reference off the top of my head, but he said something in an interview to the effect that if we discovered animals are capable of (human-like) language, that would be a milestone in the field of Biology - not Linguistics. The reasoning being that if a species possesses the capability to use such an obviously suvival-advantageous development as language but does not do so, then Biology would have a lot of explaining to do.

Animals can communicate in rudimentary ways. The "building blocks" are there. Human language didn't come from nowhere, after all. The creatures out of which we evolved can't have done otherwise but to have had "the building blocks of a complex communication system." But the full-blown system is still unique to humans. If it were not, then presumably we would see more examples of it in other species besides homo sapiens. It's also good prima facie evidence that there are at least some components of the human language system that are innate - though certainly not conclusive on this point.

In any case, I've seen plenty of examples this week of people believing simply what they want to about animals and their cognitive capacity. It seems implausible to me that animals have no self awareness or inner (emotional) experience. Likewise, it fails to shock me that parrots might have some categorical knowledge. There's no mystery here. Humans and animals are related and therefore share some related abilities. It's not the same as saying that parrots are on par with humans, nor does believing humans are cognitively special commit us to the idea that animal cognition is purely mechanistic.


At 5:18 PM, Blogger noahpoah said...

The reasoning being that if a species possesses the capability to use such an obviously suvival-advantageous development as language, then Biology would have a lot of explaining to do.

Let's not get carried away being impressed by Chomsky's biological acumen. Evolution need not take advantage of everything that's advantageous, much less things that look advantageous but might not be.

I don't think it's a given that full-blown human-style language would offer an advantage to, say, parrots. Parrots don't hunt their food (as far as I know), they don't have to say much to alert others of danger or go someplace new to scrounge for their non-prey, etc...

I think it's at least plausible (but who knows for sure?) that human language evolution was fueled, at least in part, by 'arms-race' type pressures - smart, agile, large animal food sources, other humans looking to use the same resources, etc...

No doubt the ability to use human-like language in non-human animals would have interesting biological implications, but surely Chomsky's wrong to imply that this wouldn't be just as important to linguistics. He does seem to like to think of himself as a bio-linguist, and he's made lots of biological proclamations over the years, so I've never uderstood this particular idea of his.

I should really stop commenting on your blog and go post on mine. I know it's not a compettition, but you're kicking my ass so far.


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