Acoustic Behaviour?

Chomsky has dismissed efforts to teach apes like Koko how to sign as revealing nothing about the antecedents of human language. But now we know better. According to David Shariatmadari there are several reasons:

A team of researchers in Florida recently set out to record the “acoustic behaviour” of bottlenose dolphins while they completed a difficult maneuver. The scientists designed a container with two lids and loops of rope at each end, and placed it in the water. Inside were treats like fish and gelatin cubes.

The container could be opened more easily if two dolphins cooperated – putting their beaks in the loops and pulling in opposite directions.
The researchers knew that dolphins use sound to convey meaning. Whistles, for example, have been shown to contain “information about the location, motivational state, and identity of the whistler”. They also knew that dolphins engaged in cooperative behavior. Previous studies had found that dolphins in the Irrawaddy river helped fishermen using a “head or tail slap” to indicate where nets should be cast.

But what they discovered in Florida represents a leap forward. When one animal was working to open the container, it made the occasional whistle, or burst pulse (a series of clicks typical of dolphins). When two were involved, pulling off the lids from each end, the frequency of whistles and burst pulses leapt. The experiment was designed so that the surge in noise could unequivocally be put down to the fact the dolphins were cooperating.

other words, they were “talking” to each other in order to solve a complex problem.
So why don’t we call this language?
I asked Holli Eskelinen, who led the research, expecting a cautious reply. Sure enough, she went no further than her experimental evidence allows. “All we can say at this point is that we observed a significant increase in vocalizations during the two animals interacting condition. We are yet to know if dolphins possess a language, or what we as humans define as language.” Last week, she told the New Scientist that “this is the first time that we can say conclusively that vocalizations were used to solve a cooperative task”.

In other words, they were “talking” to each other in order to solve a complex problem.

So why don’t we call this language?
I asked Holli Eskelinen, who led the research, expecting a cautious reply. Sure enough, she went no further than her experimental evidence allows. “All we can say at this point is that we observed a significant increase in vocalizations during the two animals interacting condition. We are yet to know if dolphins possess a language, or what we as humans define as language.” Last week, she told the New Scientist that “this is the first time that we can say conclusively that vocalizations were used to solve a cooperative task”.

As I’ve written before, the question of whether animals possess the capacity for language is a vexed one. On the one hand, there are the extraordinary feats of animals like Koko the gorilla, who understands and uses around 1000 items of sign-language vocabulary. Or Alex the Parrot, now deceased, who was able to communicate meaningfully with Harvard psychologist Irene Pepperberg using English words and phrases. (Pepperberg’s latest work focuses on counting among African greys, and the ability of these amazing parrots to grasp the concept of “zero”.)

On the other, there are certain key features of language that some believe are missing from animal communication. Among the most important are the syntactic structures first described in the 1950s by a young Noam Chomsky. Syntax refers to the rules governing the order of words. According to Chomskyans, they are the surface expression of deep structures which underlie all languages.
These structures, which together form a “language module” in the brain, are coded for in our genes. They allow us to express a theoretically infinite set of sentences using a finite set of sounds. The language module evolved suddenly and recently, and, it is argued, has no parallel in the animal kingdom.
Chomsky has dismissed efforts to teach apes like Koko how to sign as revealing nothing about the antecedents of human language. He says “it’s rather as if humans were taught to mimic some aspects of the waggle dance of bees and researchers were to say, ‘Wow, we’ve taught humans to communicate.’”
But if a facility for syntax appeared naturally in the animal kingdom, well, that would seem to undermine the idea that it’s a uniquely human characteristic. Rather than being a freak evolutionary blip, it might be a widely-shared faculty, exhibited, albeit in a less sophisticated form, by many intelligent animals.
Read the full story here…

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