Animal magic – “The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow”
|December 14, 2011||Posted by Georgie Tindale under reviews, science|
The irregular camera flicks on to a peach-covered bedspread in a room furnished with cream walls, a flickering television screen and the corner of a tropical plant just visible. On the bed sits an apparently alert husky dog with piercing blue eyes. She glances at the person behind the camera and looks up dumbly at the anonymous voice saying “I love you Mishka, I love you.” After several attempts from both the female and the male American voices, the husky opens her mouth, yawns, and squeaks out a vague “I love you too.” Although obviously tongue in cheek, the owners of the dog join a vast movement of scientists, researchers and pet owners in claiming that animals have a far greater intelligence and comprehension of language than we have ever given them credit for. But how much truth is there behind this claim?
Mishka is a YouTube sensation, with over 60 million views and international success, leading to her own channel and even a Twitter account – Mishka the talking husky is a massive deal in the world of talking pets. She is not alone by any means either; leaving aside the thousands of ‘my dog can talk’ videos on the internet, the sensation occasionally spreads to the bird kingdom as well and causes a huge stir within the media. Einstein, or Alex, the so-called “genius parrot”, is an obvious symbol of the movement. With an astonishing 42 sounds produced by the grey parrot, from a laser sound to a scarily accurate chimpanzee impression, the bird became internationally famous after its appearance on Animal Planet back in 2007. Is it possible that these accounts show an incredible intelligence within the animal kingdom which, in our arrogance to be superior, we are simply ignoring?
Temple Grandin, the best-selling author, professor at Colorado State University, doctor of animal science, consult to the livestock industry on animal behaviour, and star of the documentary The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow would agree. Diagnosed as being high-functionally autistic late in life, she was assessed as retarded as a child and – according to her mother on the Horizon documentary – her father had even wanted her to be institutionalised. As her achievements show, she, and the attitudes towards autism (including its formal definition as an “inwards-turning” condition) have progressed since, and she now uses her status as autistic in order to connect with animals. She believes their thinking patterns have a great deal in common. As she says, “I’ve got the nervous system of a prey species animal,” and she has a huge group of followers who believe her autism has given her a magic gift into understanding the animal brain.
In her novel Animals in Translation, Grandin cites communication and language as the “last boundary standing between man and beast.” She mentions new research from Doctor Con Slobodchikoff who uses sonograms to analyse the distress calls of Gunnison’s prairie dogs. He has concluded that the calls could well have nouns, verbs and adjectives as part of their communication, amongst other, as yet undetermined, sounds. Even more excitingly – and proving wrong sceptics who could argue that this is down to instinct – the differences in calls between dog tribes implies that the language must be learned by the dogs themselves, and is not just down to genetics. In the light of this research, Grandin says “the case against animal language is getting weaker.”
Grandin argues at her most interesting when she addresses the concept of animals having a language through music. Coming back to the prairie dogs, she cites Slobadchikoff once more, saying “the frequency rate [of the calls] may form patterns.” In other words, their calls could be seen as different pieces of music. She mentions how Mozart’s piano concerto in G major was revised by the composer after his pet starling sung the piece with the sharps changed to flats. Grandin says, “if a musical genius like Mozart admired and learned from a bird, it seems extremely likely early humans learned from birds when they were inventing the first human music.”
A study reported in the publication Nature Neuroscience that the brain area which understands spoken language, Broca’s area, also understands music. Does this mean that animals which use music as a form of communication effectively have their own language? Grandin argues that “animal music” is another case where human researchers are loathe to say animals can “do the same things humans can do.” Are we missing out on a whole world of animal language through our reluctance to accept animals as having some shared abilities with us?
Should we be considering instead the words of Noam Chomsky when he says in his publication The Architecture of Language: “During the lively eighteenth-century debates on whether apes have language, one proposal was that they do, but are smart enough to realize that if they manifested this capacity, humans would put them to work as slaves; so they prefer to keep quiet when people are around.”
A final view on the issue can be found from a famous poet and anti-whaling activist of the 1980s:
An extract from the poem Whale Nation by Heathcote Willams
“Spoken to in English,
the smallest cetacean, the dolphin
will rise to the surface
Alter its vocal frequencies to suit the measure of human
Pitch its voice to the same level as that of human sounds