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Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion

Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language

Stephen R. Anderson
With illustrations by Amanda Patrick
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion
    Book Description:

    Can animals be taught a human language and use it to communicate? Or is human language unique to human beings, just as many complex behaviors of other species are uniquely theirs? This engrossing book explores communication and cognition in animals and humans from a linguistic point of view and asserts that animals are not capable of acquiring or using human language.

    Stephen R. Anderson explains what is meant by communication, the difference between communication and language, and the essential characteristics of language. Next he examines a variety of animal communication systems, including bee dances, frog vocalizations, bird songs, and alarm calls and other vocal, gestural, and olfactory communication among primates. Anderson then compares these to human language, including signed languages used by the deaf. Arguing that attempts to teach human languages or their equivalents to the great apes have not succeeded in demonstrating linguistic abilities in nonhuman species, he concludes that animal communication systems-intriguing and varied though they may be-do not include all the essential properties of human language. Animals can communicate, but they can't talk.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12710-2
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. 1 Animals, Language, and Linguistics
    (pp. 1-14)

    Hugh Lofting’s fictional Doctor Dolittle certainly was kindly and wellmeaning — indeed a great man, and one who accomplished much for the animals he loved. Nonetheless, he must have been suffering from a serious misconception: the delusion of this book’s title. Merely believing that all animals have ways of communicating with one another would have been an eminently sensible position for the renowned naturalist to take. Where he (together with his friends in the books — and all too many others, down to the present day) went off the track was in equating these abilities with the human faculty we calllanguage....

  5. 2 Language and Communication
    (pp. 15-37)

    Communication is virtually universal among living things. Even bacteria communicate. Some classes of bacteria secrete distinctive organic molecules, for which they have specialized receptors. This apparatus allows the bacteria to detect the presence of others of the same species, a system known in the literature as quorum sensing. ‘‘Bacteria, it turns out, are like bullies who will not fight unless they are backed up by their gang. An attack by a small number of bacteria would only alert the host’s immune system to knock them out. So bacteria try to stay under the radar until their numbers are enough to...

  6. 3 On Studying Cognition
    (pp. 38-62)

    Much of what looks enormously complex to us in the world is in fact based on remarkably simple principles. A standard example in complexity theory is the elaborate constructions termites produce in building their mounds: these prove in the end to be based on nothing more complicated than each termite’s putting a new bit of the nest right next to the bit added by the previous termite. Conversely, much that looks simple can be accounted for only in terms of complicated models. The baseball player’s apparently effortless glide toward a dropping fly ball involves the (virtual) solution of systems of...

  7. 4 The Dance “Language” of Honeybees
    (pp. 63-89)

    Bees have a surprisingly rich history of posing important questions for science. For example, in 1934 the entomologist Antoine Magnan wrote that his laboratory assistant, André Sainte-Laguë, had applied some standard assumptions of fixed-wing aerodynamics to the bumblebee and concluded that flight was not possible for such a system. Thereby was born the urban legend that ‘‘according to the theory of aerodynamics, as may be readily demonstrated through wind tunnel experiments, the bumblebee is unable to fly. This is because the size, weight, and shape of his body in relation to the total wingspread make flying impossible. But the bumblebee,...

  8. 5 Sound in Frog and Man
    (pp. 90-127)

    The preceding chapters have been concerned mostly with general questions about methods and underlying assumptions in studying animals. That discussion sets the stage for a more detailed exploration of the nature of human language and its relation to the communicative and other cognitive abilities of animals.

    When we think of language, we think first of speech, of language as it is conveyed in sound. Chapter 9 makes the point that, even apart from ways of representing speech in another modality such as writing, language is not necessarily connected with speaking. But the link between the usual medium in which we...

  9. 6 Birds and Babies Learning to Speak
    (pp. 128-165)

    The Moon Man learned the language of the birds by dint of intensive listening and enormous amounts of repetition — the method sometimes applied in total immersion classes for human learners of foreign languages. When we study a second language as adults, we may approach it in this way or we may have a great deal of explicit instruction in the principles of grammar. Whatever we are doing, clearly it is not the same as what small children do during the period when their first language(s) can be said to be developing. We have no reason to believe that they need...

  10. 7 What Primates Have to Say for Themselves
    (pp. 166-196)

    The birds, the bees, the frogs, and the other animals we have looked at all can teach us. If we hope to find communicative behavior anything like our own, though, surely we ought to look at animals closer to home: the (nonhuman) primates.

    If we are interested only in finding some anticipation of human language, the resulting survey is largely discouraging. Primate communication is qualitatively similar to that in other animals, and while intriguing and novel features are present, they do not in the end point to systems that are interestingly closer to English than, say, bird calls. We can...

  11. 8 Syntax
    (pp. 197-230)

    We have now looked at the communication systems of a number of non-human species. In essentially every case, I have raised the point that no matter how fascinating the behaviors involved, they still only allow the animals that use them to convey messages from a small, fixed set.

    Honeybee waggle dances look like an exception, but they escape this limitation only on a technicality. Distinct dances could in principle refer to food sources at an unlimited number of locations, but that is all the bees can ‘‘talk about’’: the location of food (or a potential new hive site). And the...

  12. 9 Language Is Not Just Speech
    (pp. 231-262)

    Apart from the honeybee dances of Chapter 4, most of the communication systems we have considered up to this point share Hockett’s design feature of a vocal-auditory channel. Frogs croak, birds sing, monkeys chutter to one another. All of these (as well as the long-distance subsonic rumbling of elephants, the songs of whales, and many others) involve one animal’s producing sound from which another animal derives information. Sound seems to be a peculiarly natural medium in which to communicate.

    When a male stickleback provides a visual signal to females of his interest in mating by changing the color of his...

  13. 10 Language Instruction in the Laboratory
    (pp. 263-304)

    Now that we have explored the naturally occurring communication systems of a variety of animals and examined some of the structural characteristics of human languages, it is time to raise a basic question: to what extent do nonhumans (especially other primates) have cognitive abilities that would support the acquisition and use of a human natural language? To put it starkly, how much of human language is uniquely available to humans?

    We have already seen that human spoken languages are inaccessible to most other animals for a very simple reason. They lack the requisite apparatus for producing speech. Understanding may well...

  14. 11 Language, Biology, and Evolution
    (pp. 305-324)

    To paraphrase Art Linkletter, animals do the darnedest things. When they communicate with one another, some of what they do is quite outside our own capabilities. Even if we ignore exotica such as ultrasound in bats, electric fish, and the like, for which we lack the relevant sense organs, consider the use of infrasound by elephants for long-distance communication, the underwater songs of whales, or the olfactory communication of lemurs. We have also witnessed some of the remarkable (and perhaps unsuspected) complexity of human language, though. For those of us who are human language users, our linguistic ability seems absolutely...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 325-330)
  16. References
    (pp. 331-338)
  17. Credits
    (pp. 339-340)
  18. Index
    (pp. 341-355)