Animal Communication


Throughout this course of study, the concept of language as the demarcation between animals and humans has prevailed. Further, as we have seen in our class readings, many claim that it is through language that our "consciousness" and "cognitive" skills are developed. Accordingly, these skills are necessary for us to interpret and conceptualize our world. What this infers is that because we have these skills and the "brute" animals do not, animals do not possess the ability to analyze or think about their world. When presented in this manner, I was almost convinced that this was a plausible representation of mental development. However, I found that I still had a nagging feeling that it could not be true. Upon further investigation I found that language is by no means the only way to interpret or communicate in the world. The significance of this statement is that if my thesis proves valid the results are twofold: it refutes the behaviorists and Cartesian assertion that language is the boundary that separates animals and humans; and it supports the theory that animals not only have language, but they also posses the ability for cognitive thought.

No one will argue that animals possess sight and auditory abilities. However, the concept that animals have language and are capable of thought for some is a bitter pill to swollow. I believe that they are also capable of thought and even intention. Granted, the development of language is often used as a gauge of mental aptitude in humans: "Language competence is intimately tied to, or maybe even definitive of, our concept of human mentality" (Atherton and Schwartz, 137). However, while language is an asset which enables people to conceptualize their world, it is by no means a necessity. This is demonstrated by the ability of physically handicapped persons (e.g., the deaf) and mentally handicapped persons (e.g., victims of cerebral palsy) to communicate using symbols. It is also demonstrated by the reliance on kinesics, body language, in young children. Numerous studies attest to the ability of apes and baboons to communicate using symbols and body language. These studies are the first steps in proving the existence of animal mentation.

Griffin argues that many scientists do not accept the notion of animal mentation because of the difficulty of defining abstract concepts such as "consciousness" and "mind" (Griffin 163). In reviewing the works of other scholars, Griffin puts forth some working definitions. The concept of mind "Encompasses sense perception, feeling and emotion, traits of character and personality, and the volitional aspects of human life, as well as the more narrowly intellectual phenomena" (Griffin 163). Consciousness in an entity suggests "an organism which can have intentions... the ability to form a plan, and make a decision to adopt the plan" (Griffin 164). Although these terms are defined by their human references, studies indicate that animals, and even insects, demonstrate emotion, volition, and planning in their daily lives. For example, the communicative dances of honeybees convey multi-level messages that suggest conscious thought and the incorporation of new information (Griffin 178). Similarly, wild vervet monkeys have a system whihc allows them to alert others in their group to potential danger. Diamond states that they "have a natural form of symbolic communication based on grunts, with slightly different grunts to mean "leopard," eagle," and "snake." (Diamond 55). What is significant is that the concept of volition is also evident vervet monkeys when they "fake" a grunt in order to scatter the other monkeys away from food. Hence, volition and communication should not be considered unique to the human animal.

The ability to manipulate objects and to investigate new information is considered another hallmark of the intellectual development unique to humans. However children, as well as animals are capable of "learning" these traits equally as well. According to Piaget, the child is like a little scientist who "almost from birth touches objects, manipulates them, turns them around, looks at them, and in these ways he develops an increasing understanding of their properties" (Wood 35). The understanding comes, in part, from "referring to preceding observables which are related to the object; or inferring the relations between an action and a reaction, but the input is always from observable material contents" (Piaget 171). All this is accomplished without the benefit of language. It is not necessary to communicate verbally to a child presented with a new object how to