Element Two: Animal Communication

FrenchmanBar499x361A Frenchman walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder. The bartender says, “Hey that’s cool. Where did you get that?” The parrot says, “I got him in France. There are millions of them there.”

Animals may not be as smart as the bird in this joke, but they may be smarter than people think. They can use symbols and calls to communicate with each other, and when trained, they can understand and use human language in many surprising ways. In light of Element One, design features, let’s take a look at some of the amazing ways that animals can communicate.

Alex: The Learning Parrot

Irene Pepperberg is well-known for her research in animal cognition (the mental abilities of animals). And she is exceptionally knowledgeable about Parrots. When I was a graduate student in 2002, my professor and I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Pepperberg in a coffee shop while attending a Conference at Harvard University. Though I didn’t get to meet her Parrot named Alex, I did hear firsthand some stories about this amazing bird.

Alex’s name comes from the acronym “Avian Learning Experiment.” During his life, Alex learned to correctly use over one hundred English words, and with these words or labels, he could describe colors, shapes, and objects. He used words that showed that he understood concepts such as “same-different” and “bigger-smaller.” Alex also said many interesting things. When shown some corn, Alex once said, “Yummy.” During a busy time of study and research with Dr. Pepperberg, he said, “I want some water.” One night Dr. Pepperberg put Alex in his cage, and Alex said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” He said this phrase every night, but these were also his last words. The next morning Alex was found dead in his cage. He was only 31-years old, which is actually young for an African Grey Parrot.

Chaser: The Dog Who Knows 1,000 Words

If you think Alex is impressive, you might be even more impressed with Chaser. Chaser is one of the smartest dogs in the world. He is a border collie, and border collies are special because they are sheep herding dogs, which are bred to listen to their shepherd’s voice. If a border collie isn’t good at listening to their master, they are not bred. Chaser is impressive because of his work with Dr. John W. Pilley. Dr. Pilley was a psychology professor who often brought another dog to his classes. This dog was named Yasha.

For many years, Dr. Pilley worked with Yasha. He worked with Yasha as a scientist, but they were also best friends. After many years, Yasha became very sick. Dr. Pilley tried to help Yasha, but Yasha didn’t get better. Then it happened. Yasha died, and Dr. Pilley cried and cried. For 16 years, he worked, studied, and played with Yasha, but 16 years is old for a dog. After Yasha’s death, Dr. Pilley decided to never get another dog again. A few years passed, and Dr. Pilley retired from his job. Then one day, he came home, and his wife came to meet him. She kissed him and said, “I have a gift for you.” The gift was a new dog. Dr. Pilley was very happy. It was a beautiful black and white dog, and Dr. Pilley named the dog Chaser.

As Chaser grew, Dr. Pilley began to spend about 5 hours per day, working and playing with Chaser and teaching her language. Chaser played with all kinds of toys, objects, and stuffed animals. And each one of these things had a name. It was as if all these things were a flock of sheep for Chaser. In time, Chaser learned the words for 1022 of these objects. Chaser also learned to tell the difference between nouns and verbs.

But perhaps Chaser’s most amazing skill is her ability to learn new words by process of elimination or by inference.  She has shown this skill many times, and she even did it on television with the famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson sat on a sofa, and he asked Chaser to find a doll named “Darwin.” The problem was that Chaser had never seen this Darwin doll before. She went into another room where there were a number of objects and dolls. And then she came back to Tyson with a curious look on her face. Tyson again said, “Find Darwin.” And then Chaser came back with the Darwin doll!

Top of the Class: Koko and Kanzi

Though we humans might like the “dog linguists” like Chaser the most (because dogs and humans tend to get along nicely), primates are probably the best animals at using human language. There is Koko the gorilla, who worked with the psychologist, Francine Patterson. Patterson claims that Koko knows about 1,000 signs in “Gorilla Sign Language.” And other writers have reported that Koko understands about 2,000 words of spoken English. We should be skeptical of these big claims, but there is no question that Koko can understand a lot and uses sign language to communicate.

However, Koko is not the king of primate communicators. That would probably be Kanzi whose primatologist is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Kanji is a Bonobo Chimpanzee. At first, Savage-Rumbaugh tried to teach Kanzi’s mother, Matata to communicate with geometric symbols on a special keyboard, but Matata did not do so well. While his mother “studied,” Kanzi just played in the background, but actually during that play, Kanzi started to learn how to use the symbols. Incidentally, there may be an argument here for starting language learning early (or at least getting a lot of time on task with language), not to mention the importance of play!

Savage-Rumbaugh guesses that Kanzi understands “several thousand” words and that he uses 450 lexigrams on his special digital keyboard, but on a daily basis he regularly uses 30 or 40 lexigrams. Kanzi also combines symbols in a particular order in a kind of “proto-grammar,” and he can respond correctly to many novel sentences like, “Please sit up.” “Could you cut your onions with your Knife.” “Put the pine needles in the refrigerator.” “Could you carry the television outdoors, please?” Kanzi has a son, named Teco. And everyday, Teco works with Kanzi and Savage-Rumbaugh, so in the future Teco may become even better at communicating than his father. If you see Kanzi, Teco, Savage-Rumbaugh together, it almost feels like the beginning of the Planet of the Apes.

Design Features and Animals

Even with this very short introduction, we can see that the line between animal communication and human language is not as clear as we might think. After being taught by humans, animals like Kanzi and Alex seem to be able to understand and use signs and symbols arbitrarily. And Chaser understands these signs. With the “arbitrariness of the sign,” we mean that the words for onion and corn do not look or sound like onions or corn. They are just arbitrary symbols. And Kanzi can use his keyboard to refer to places and things that are removed from him in space, so he can use language for displacement. And with Kanzi’s proto-grammar, we may even see hints of novel and creative uses of the symbols that Kanzi knows.

We may want to debate whether Kanzi can talk about the future or fantasize about hypothetical worlds using his lexigrams, and we may also question whether Savage-Rumbaugh is being fully objective in her claims. After all, she is like a mother to Kanzi and Teco. And mother’s tend to be biased in favor of their “sons.” We need cautious and critical thinking when we look at all scientific claims. But there is no question that Alex, Chaser, and Kanzi are utterly amazing in their commutative abilities, and in the future, as we learn more about these animals, and as they learn more, we will most surely be even more amazed.