Thursday, April 01, 2004

Human and Animal Intelligence: The Gap is A Chasm

Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language

By: Stephen Budiansky



Perhaps I have read too many popular books about animal intelligence over the past 20 years, but they generally hold few surprises for me anymore. The narratives are as predictable as a vaudeville melodrama, and the same stock characters always appear.  

René Descartes will put in his usual bit appearance as the arch villain, freezing the souls of scientists with his heartless insistence that animals are mere machines, incapable of sensing pain or experiencing thoughts. A small band of brilliant but plucky iconoclasts—including, naturally, a number of attractive young females—will challenge the “scientific establishment” with their bold willingness to believe that animals are thinking, feeling, compassionate beings. Kanzi the bonobo will make a guest turn, punching his keyboard to create amazing sign-language sentences and humiliating all of the fuddy-duddies who had smugly denied that animals could share the unique human ability of language. Some equally gifted whales and dolphins will appear for a brief crowd scene; the gorilla Binti will heroically dash to the rescue of a human child within seconds of his impending doom. A pet dog will leave not a dry eye in the house with his touching, even telepathic empathy for his ill or endangered owner. The famous percentage 98.4 (sometimes played by the stand-ins 98.6, 98, or 99.99) will descend from the heavens with a trumpet fanfare to amaze us with the similarity in DNA between human and chimp. Finally, the narrator, voice quivering with piety and bombast, will send us home quoting Darwin’s famous admonition that the difference between animals and man is one of degree, not kind. 

Like vaudevillians of old, present-day authors of books about animals are loath to tamper with a proven recipe for success. As a narrative vehicle, the formula of a few brave champions taking on a narrow-minded but powerful establishment is hard to beat. It is hard to argue with the proposition that most people would much rather read stories of amazing animal feats than be told what is wrong, suspect, or dubious about such stories. This is nothing new. A full century ago, Edward Thorndike, the pioneering American experimental psychologist, complained bitterly about all the books of his day that, he said, gave not “a psychology, but rather a eulogy of animals. They have all been about animal intelligence, never about animal stupidity.” 

Like all clichés, the formula of these books is at best a caricature of the truth. The books generally seriously misrepresent the basic known facts about animal intelligence. Worse, they perpetuate a simplistic, either-or attitude about animal minds and the brains that create them—either they are machines or they are human. This attitude utterly fails to do justice to the amazing insights that cognitive science has provided over the past few decades. 


If Wynne is a genial and quite original iconoclast, Tim Friend is a more conventional popularizer of animal intelligence. To his credit, Friend, a science writer for USA Today (a newspaper not exactly known for its in-depth coverage or writing), clearly spent a lot of time digging deeply into recent research on animal communication. Animal Talk offers some well-rendered distillations of some complex science. He has chapters on pheromones, visual communication, the relation between vocal communication and territoriality, and dolphins and whales, and he has spent much time in the company of the leading researchers in those areas, asking a lot of good questions. Friend does not shy away from tackling crucial and complex ideas that connect communication theory with evolution, mate selection, competitiveness, and even game theory. One of the best sections in Animal Talk is the clear explanation of the research of zoologist Eugene Morton, Ph.D., on the near-universal connection between certain tone patterns and meaning in animal vocalizations, patterns which Morton terms “motivational-structural rules.” 

The weakness of Animal Talk is that whenever it comes to the big picture, Friend unfailingly grabs hold of the same old clichés. Thus, we read that Descartes is to blame for a “rigid” scientific mindset that rejected any acknowledgment that animals can think or feel; that Darwin saved the day by showing that humans were just a part of nature too; that only when the rest of the scientific establishment overcame its “biases” did researchers begin to explore the true capabilities of animals; that apes and dolphins clearly understand both syntax and grammar (and show “compassion,” too); that animals are “thinking, feeling, making decisions, and communicating in ways that are more sophisticated than we have imagined”; and, finally, that human language is really no different from any other form of animal communication. 

The indictment of Descartes is, as I mentioned, a staple of this genre, but it is a caricature both of what Descartes actually said and, even more important, of his actual influence on latter-day researchers. Descartes’s “dualism” was not so much a statement of the gulf between man and animal as between body and soul. Descartes did consider animal minds to be machines, but he also considered everything in the human mind, short of the “soul,” to be a machine, too. 

Even so, it takes a remarkably superficial reading of the history of research on animal intelligence to swallow the line that the dominant view in the field was ever one that rigidly embraced anything like Cartesian duality. Even before Darwin, it was standard for zoologists to invoke the notion of an “informing spirit” resident in an animal to explain its purposeful or intentional behavior. Both popularizers and scientific followers of Darwin in the late 19th century proposed extravagant and generous interpretations of animal behavior in terms of conscious, explicitly humanlike, reasoning. Even 20th-century behaviorists— so often held up as the villains for supposedly reducing animals to mere stimulus-response machines—were ideologically committed to the continuity between human and animal minds. If they did read Descartes, they obviously did not buy the stuff about humans having souls, for behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner insisted that even the most complex things that human minds did were nothing but the result of mechanical stimulus-response conditioning. The strict behaviorists were the most enthusiastic early supporters of experiments to teach human language to apes, because they believed that any observable differences between humans and apes in mental functioning were the result of nothing more than different behavioral conditioning. 

The only real bias against extravagant interpretations of animals’ mental abilities that arose in the 20th-century scientific establishment was not the result of any philosophical opposition to conceding that animals might be smarter than we imagined, but, rather, was the result of bitter practical experience.

The only real bias against extravagant interpretations of animals’ mental abilities that arose in the 20th-century scientific establishment was not the result of any philosophical opposition to conceding that animals might be smarter than we imagined, but, rather, was the result of bitter practical experience-—experience that had made plain the dangers of leaping to unwarranted conclusions on the basis of badly designed learning experiments in which animals were inadvertently cued to give the correct answers. 


Friend mentions the famous story of the horse Clever Hans, but, oddly, he tries to twist it into another illustration of the scientific establishment’s rigidity. Not that Friend claims Hans really could do mathematics or knew the answers to questions about world politics, as his owner believed and as a commission of German psychologists disproved. But Friend nonetheless insists that “had the comparative psychologists appreciated the genuine intelligence that Hans possessed and not been so rigid…research on animal behavior might have been more productive over the past hundred years.” 

Given the countless research hours that were thrown away in the early 20th century on comparative psychology experiments that were hopelessly compromised by weak design or inadvertent cueing of the animal subjects, this assertion is remarkably absurd and naive. But it is one that even some scientists (who really should know better) also make, because it serves both their desire to advance claims for humanlike mental processes in animals and the political agenda of animal rights. Friend makes this link explicit, complaining that, were it not for the debunking of Clever Hans, “perhaps cruel experiments, such as rearing infant primates in isolation, could have been avoided. Admitting that animals possess intelligence, emotions, and even cultural behaviors surely would have influenced how the scientific community treated animals in laboratories and pharmaceutical studies.”

This is a minor masterpiece of irrelevancy and muddled thinking. Not that the issue of animal treatment is irrelevant: far from it. But the sweeping indictment portraying criticism of demonstrably shoddy experimental methods as part of some sort of scientific conspiracy to mistreat and belittle animals is both illogical and self-serving—especially when it is invoked to shield from normal scientific scrutiny the anecdotal claims for advanced language ability in animals that were made by Savage-Rumbaugh and others. 

This is not just nit-picking, for Friend’s own credulous acceptance of many well-worn anecdotes of animal sagacity is a serious flaw that runs through the whole book. For example, he repeats the story of a three-year-old boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at an Illinois zoo and how “a seven-year-old female mountain gorilla, named Binti-Jua, gingerly lifted the boy into her arms and placed him near a door of the enclosure so that zoo officials could take him and administer aid.” Friend concludes: “There is no doubt that Binti-Jua felt compassion for the primate of a closely related species and intended to help rescue him.” 

“No doubt” is strong language, especially when one hears the rest of the story, which Friend does not bother telling. “The media made it sound like Binti made a conscious decision to quote unquote ‘save the boy,’ but this is speculation,” Binti’s keeper later complained. “She saved him from what, really? The other animals were not coming after him.” As in the many gushing media reports that followed the original incident, Friend also omitted the rather important fact that Binti had been extensively trained (and rewarded) to retrieve a doll and bring it to her keepers. This training was done because many zoo-reared apes fail to display proper maternal behavior (especially when, like Binti, they were hand-reared by humans in infancy). That the boy was stunned by his fall of 20 feet helped too. As Binti’s keeper explained, had the boy been awake and screaming, “he might well have elicited a different kind of response”—Binti would likely have run away or even attacked.


In Animal Talk, Friend repeats other famous but dubious animal anecdotes—many of which, by the way, are deftly debunked in Wynne’s Do Animals Think? Friend asserts, for example, that “the clearest evidence for teaching” in animals comes from a group of killer whales that deliberately beach themselves and grab a seal off the shore. Young whales are said to learn this complex tactic by observing their mothers. Friend seems to have taken this claim directly from a popular book by ape researcher Frans de Waal of the Yerkes Regional Primate Center, so perhaps we should not be too hard on a journalist simply quoting an expert. But when Wynne went back to the original research on the whales, he found the claim to fall apart. In three years of observations, 88 strandings were seen; yet in 81 of those, a seal was not even in sight when the stranding occurred.

In only two of the 88 strandings was a seal actually caught, and in one of those cases it was the whale calf that launched the attack; so, as Wynne ruefully comments, “maybe mother was learning from her baby!” This seems more like a not very impressive case of coincidence than an impressive case of learning. 

As we might predict, Friend accepts without question the claims that the bonobo Kanzi “can construct 650 sentences following proper rules of grammar and syntax,” and that dolphins may be “speaking a language similar to our own.” The latter, I admit, he qualifies by acknowledging that “the question” has “not been resolved.” This is the kind of pseudo-qualifier I came to know and love during my own years in journalism: whenever you wanted to say something outrageous or attention-getting but did not have any real basis for it, you could always say that “the question” had been raised—as in, for example, “questions about whether the congressman is a corrupt child-molesting drug-dealing pervert have not yet been fully addressed.” 

Friend’s determination to break down the supposed artificial walls that were erected between human and animal minds led him to neglect completely some of the intriguing implications for human language that arise from Eugene Morton’s research on pitch and motivational meaning in animal vocalizations, although he explains this research well. Morton found that many animals instinctively use pitch to express intentions: high-pitched, tonal sounds convey appeasement or nonthreatening intentions, while low-pitched, rough sounds convey threats or aggressive intentions. But this is a far cry from a semantic meaning or the use of words. By contrast, words in all spoken human languages are mixtures of vowels and consonants, tonal and rough sounds. In effect, only when human vocalizations neutralized the inherent (but highly limited) “meaning” in their pitch by mixing tonal and rough sounds in a single utterance could those sounds acquire independent semantic meanings in the form of true words. 

Friend, like all too many popularizers, I think, falls into the trap of believing that the way to let animals be themselves and speak for themselves is to portray them as being as similar to humans as possible. But true recognition and appreciation of animal minds also includes honoring their diversity, and Wynne’s sympathetic portrayal is a welcome step in that direction. 

It is striking that even though the star ape “linguists” use their “words” almost exclusively to demand items they desire immediately, human infants—almost from the moment they begin to speak—use words to call the attention of other humans to objects and simply to share that they know what a word means. That alone carries profound implications for how human and animal minds do, in fact, differ—as undeniably similar as they are in many other ways. Friend, like all too many popularizers, I think, falls into the trap of believing that the way to let animals be themselves and speak for themselves is to protray them as being as similar to humans as possible. But true recognition and appreciation of animal minds also includes honoring their diversity, and Wynne’s sympathetic portrayal is a welcome step in that direction.



From Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language by Tim Friend. © 2004 Tim Friend. Reprinted with permission of Free Press. 

Morton has had the good fortune to work and live in a beautiful preserve in Virginia with some of the most unusual species on the planet. The Smithsonian’s Conservation Research Center was once the location of the world’s most active breeding program for endangered species. Over two decades, Morton studied the calls of a wide variety of exotic animals and birds kept at the center and documented further consistency of the rules. 

Morton has tested the motivation-structural rules on the Virginia opossum, the Tasmanian devil, and the rare maned wolf of Argentina, to name just a few. Each makes sounds with their own species-specific qualities, but the vocalizations of all the animals studied can be grouped into the same discrete categories of growls, barks, and whines. Within the category of whines, Morton has found that squeals and squeaks are primary types of appeasing or friendly calls. The rule applies primarily to the vocalizations animals make when they are in relatively close contact. Ordinarily it does not apply to the long calls that birds and mammals make when announcing their presence on established territories, such as birdsong or the songs of male humpback whales. But the low-frequency territorial roar of the Central American howler monkey may have evolved from the low-frequency aggressive calls it uses in close skirmishes with intruders. 

One does not need to look any closer than the backyard to see and hear the rules at work. Purple martins are insect-eating migratory birds that readily accept the public housing units provided by generous people throughout the eastern and midwestern United States. When the birds arrive each year to take up residence in their multitiered apartments, the dominant martins will demand control of the penthouse suites at the top. Usually some early arrivals of lower-ranking social status have already moved into the empty penthouses. The dominant birds quickly set about dislodging the tenants. They put on aggressive displays, and the poor fellows being evicted from the prime roosts areunmistakably submissive. The aggressors puff up their feathers and make predictable low-frequency calls that sound like “zwrack, zwrack, zwrack” when scolding the cowering interlopers. But when the same aggressors address their mates, they emit a call that sounds like “sweet.” 

Growls, barks, and whines do not qualify as a language by strict human linguistic standards, but they are highly effective means of communicating. Morton argues that the motivation-structural rules of animal communication are analogous to the universal rules of grammar found in human speech. Once a person becomes aware of the rules and general features of this natural language, it is relatively easy to distinguish between mating calls, territorial calls, and aggressive encounters, and the more intimate conversations that take place among families and members of the same social groups. The adage “It’s not what you say but how you say it” holds just as true for animals as it does for humans.

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Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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