Language Barrier

Why Scientists Can't Talk to the Animals

Do you remember when animals could talk?

We were children then. And it made so much sense. It also made sense to many adults in the ancient world. Reasoning, talking animals powered countless myths, fables, and tales. As it happens, everyday animals have many types of intelligence, but reason and the language it generates are not among them.

The dawn of naturalism (the belief that nature is all there is) as science orthodoxy fostered a new conviction: if nature is all there is, then humans are just animals in nature, and reason and making moral choices are not unique and do not signify anything unique about humans (perhaps they are even illusions).

This intuition formed two branches of ideas. One branch recasts human activity in animal terms. That perspective has become obligatory in the sciences and has infiltrated popular culture, where hundreds of books like The Naked Ape (1967), Dinosaur Brains (1989), and The Ape That Understood the Universe (2018) have spread the new way of seeing ourselves.

The other branch recasts animal activity in human terms. That is, if human intelligence is an accidental outcropping of the animal world, a sufficiently diligent researcher may expect to find the same intelligence in many other animals. But, so the argument runs, we are too prejudiced to see it. It follows that, with some effort on our part by way of reparation, some animals can be taught to communicate with us as intellectual equals.

Such a conviction cannot be refuted by mere absence of evidence. But, for the record, let's briefly look at three such research enterprises: the dolphins, the apes, and a proposed experiment with the elephants.

The Dolphins

A seminal year for the dolphins was 1961.1 American physician and neuroscientist John C. Lilly (1915–2001) had long been convinced that dolphins might be "just as intelligent as humans." His bestseller Man and Dolphin, published that year,attracted the attention of Frank Drake, an ET enthusiast and force behind SETI. Drake is best known for the Drake Equation (estimating the probability of ET by plugging in key numbers). He saw Lilly's point that, if we could communicate with intelligent dolphins, we could communicate with ET.

The idea was introduced at an elite science meeting that year, the Green Bank Conference, where the legendary skeptical astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–1996) acknowledged that he was a believer. So, we are told, was evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane: "As the Princeton historian D. Graham Burnett has noted, they wore insignia shaped like bottlenose dolphins and sent each other coded messages to hone their dolphinese and alien-language-decoding skills."2 "The Order of the Dolphin" was born.

Meanwhile, in 1960, Lilly had founded the Communication Research Institute on St. Thomas (Virgin Islands) to facilitate conversations with dolphins, and Frank Drake arranged NASA funding for the project. Lilly also published a paper in Science in 1961: "Vocal Exchanges Between Dolphins: Bottlenose dolphins 'talk' to each other with whistles, clicks, and a variety of other noises." Everything seemed to be going swimmingly, except for Dolphinese.

In 1965, Lilly arranged for his research assistant, Margaret Howe Lovatt, to live in a tank with a dolphin named Peter for ten weeks, to see if that would help break the communication barrier. It didn't. Neither did feeding the dolphins LSD. The fact that Lilly had started to use the drug himself became a source of contention, along with charges of cruelty to the dolphins, which had included vivisection.

In 1966, the experiment lost its funding, and Peter was sent to live in a small tank in Florida, where he died a few weeks later, under circumstances that the researchers think of as suicide. Certainly, the conditions were unsuited to a dolphin.

The Apes

A similar fate befell primate apes during roughly the same period. Apes have long attracted attention, in the hope that they might be taught language and/or signing skills. There was limited success, but it was made to sound like Planet of the Apes. Indeed, we were reassured in Smithsonian Magazine in 2011 that "'talking' apes are not just the stuff of science fiction; scientists have taught many apes to use some semblance of language."3 Well, sort of. Looking more closely, careful observers found that the apes' linguistic skills were over-interpreted by researchers whose testimony was gladly accepted by media that needed the story even if it wasn't accurate.4

The belief that "Chimps R Us" did not always result in humane treatment of some of the famous animals. For example, the renowned Nim Chimpsky (1972–2000), raised like a human until he became dangerous, met a grim fate. As a reviewer of the film Project Nim recounts:

Nim is sold into medical experimentation, from which he's improbably rescued only to wind up at a convalescent home for psychologically damaged equine animals run by a well-meaning but clueless animal rights activist who has no idea how to care for a chimp—a single chimp, alone: a hellish experience for a highly social primate like a chimpanzee or a human.5

And today? "Not only did signing apes never become common, the number of research programs studying ape signing has gone from a few to even fewer."6 The idea is now kept alive by claims that we haven't tried hard enough to communicate with apes on their own terms: "Rather than force apes to learn our language, we should be learning theirs."7 But, of course, the researchers' challenge was never learning chimpanzee; rather, it was teaching chimpanzees to converse like humans.

The Elephants

Never mind. Recently, we were told about another project: talking with elephants. Philosopher and elephant researcher Don Ross explains:

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that elephants currently express the full range of personal and creative capacities that humans do. But I suspect all that's missing are certain informational and institutional structures, along with the motivations to innovate upon them. In humans, we know what those structures look like: they are the books, movies, museums and laws that manifest in the world what otherwise exists only in our heads. It might be that there's a lot going on in the heads of elephants, but they just haven't been moved to externalize and store it in the environment the way we have.8

Ross has faith in the convergent evolution of humans and elephants and hopes to begin a research project shortly.9 But as so often happens in this field, fundamental realities are ignored. Convergence is real in nature, of course: insects and birds both fly. But the insect did not teach the bird to fly. Why should humans need to teach elephants to reason? And why should we believe it possible?

We must trust no harm comes to the elephants.

Only Humans

Philosophically inclined neurosurgeon Michael Egnor observed earlier this year that orthodox science has lost touch with a fundamental fact that accounts for why humans are the only animals who can speak. Humans are the only animals who can process abstractions:

Animals can only think concretely. Their thought is of particulars—the particular bowl of food, thrown stick, or warm bed. They don't contemplate nutrition, exercise, or rest. Humans can think abstractly, without any particular physical object in mind. For example, a vet might tell her client during an office visit, "Tuffy here needs to lose about 1.5 kg. I suggest a lower calorie kibble and more exercise—if possible, before bedtime." She can explain it to her client but not to the dog because it's all abstractions about times, places, things, and concepts. Of course, he might recognize his name, "Tuffy," and raise his ears slightly to see if he is being told to do something concrete.

Concrete thought needs no language because the concrete thinker focuses on a perceived object. Tuffy thinks of his bowl of food. If he were to think of nutrition, an abstract concept, he would need abstract designators as objects, not only to express his thought but even to think it. In short, animals don't have language because they don't have abstract thought and thus have neither the capacity nor the need for abstract designators—words as language.10

The problem with Egnor's traditional Aristotelian approach is hardly that it is deficient. It gets the behavior exactly right. But it crushes the idea that we are just beasts among the beasts. Human life has not been and never will be as simple as that. A science for which such a view is orthodoxy is destined to suffer many more frustrations and disappointments in its efforts to humanize animals.

1. Denyse O'Leary, "Dolphinese: The idea that animals think as we do dies hard. But first it can lead us down strange paths," Mind Matters News (Aug. 19, 2019):
2. Justin Gregg, "Dolphins Aren't as Smart as You Think," Wall Street Journal (Dec. 18, 2013):
3. Erin Wayman, "Six Talking Apes," (Aug. 11, 2011):
4. Denyse O'Leary, "Researchers: Apes are just like us. And we're not doing the right things to make them start behaving that way . . .", Mind Matters News (July 17, 2019):
5. Benjamin Hale, "The Sad Story of Nim Chimpsky," Dissent (Aug. 17, 2011):
6. Brian Dunning, "The Apes Who Learned Sign Language," Skeptoid (July 3, 2018):
7. Rachel Nuwer, "To communicate with apes, we must do it on their terms," Nova (April 25, 2018):; O'Leary, ibid., note 4.
8. Don Ross, "The elephant as a person," Aeon (Oct. 24, 2018):
9. Denyse O'Leary, "Elephants who fly—or become 'persons'—are magic," Mind Matters News (Aug. 13, 2019):
10. Michael Egnor, "The real reason why only human beings speak," Mind Matters News (Mar. 4, 2019):

is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #51, Winter 2019 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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