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February 23rd, 2008

Animal Communication

The other day I was reading about the amazing <A href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waggle_dance>waggle dance</a> that honeybees perform to tell their hivemates of the location of food, and then found the wikipedia page on <A href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoosemiotics>animal communication</a>.  From reading this article, it seems that some very useful work could be done if philosophers of language collaborated with ethologists (or whatever scientists work in this field) and cleared up some of the fundamental issues.  Now, I don’t know how representative of the field the wikipedia article is (the article references many studies and papers, though it’s hard to tell whether experts agree with the overall organization of the article), but it suggests some fundamental confusions.

The wikipedia article states that “Animal communication is any behavior on the part of one animal that has an effect on the current or future behavior of another animal.“  This is a nice operational definition for scientists to use, but it obviously has some flaws.  This is admitted further along in the article:<blockquote>If a prey animal moves or makes a noise in such a way that a predator can detect and capture it, that fits the definition of “communication” given above. Nonetheless, we do not feel comfortable talking about it as communication. Our discomfort suggests that we should modify the definition of communication in some way, either by saying that communication should generally be to the adaptive advantage of the communicator, or by saying that it involves something more than the inevitable consequence of the animal going about its ordinary life.</blockquote> It seems to me that just thinking about things in Gricean terms would help clear things up.

Some interesting examples that are discussed include warning coloration (many poisonous animals have very bright coloration, which has co-evolved with the perceptual systems of potential predators, saving both species much grief in the long run), pursuit-deterrence (some antelopes engage in “stotting” (high jumping while starting to run) when escaping predators, to indicate that they have the energy to far outrun the predator), and warning signals (many monkeys make certain vocalizations to indicate to their group the presence of predators).  It seems that these particular examples rely on different aspects of Grice’s account of speaker meaning.  Warning coloration doesn’t seem to rely on any particular intention of the “speaker” – in fact, the animal with the coloration generally has no intentional control at all.  Stotting is also similar – a predator that sees the antelope stotting can quickly realize that it can’t catch the potential prey, and will give up.  A difference between these two however is that warning coloration is purely conventional (a predator may know that bright orange frogs are poisonous, but if it ends up in a different environment with bright blue snakes, it might not recognize the signal) while stotting is somehow more natural (which is not to say that every potential predator will recognize the speed advantage the stotting indicates – this shows that there is still a difference between stotting and the rustle animals generally make in the bushes, which is an unmistakable sign of prey).  Warning calls that monkeys make seem to involve more of the Gricean mechanism – they may or may not be intentional in the sense we are familiar with for human behavior (perhaps they’re more akin to humans saying “ouch!” when hurt), but the recognition of the quasi-intention is essential for the targets of the signal.  Unlike stotting, this is a signal that can be faked (stotting is presumably so hard to do that it would be impossible to fake if an animal wasn’t actually capable of outrunning the predator).  Thus, the listener needs to understand the intention of the “speaker” in order to properly respond to the signal.

This last point about the potential for faking a signal has apparently been a focus of discussion – most evolutionarily stable animal communication is honest, though there are some instances of dishonesty.  (For instance, many harmless animals that live in the same environment as poisonous ones end up evolving the same coloration, to protect themselves from predators.  Human communication is another notable instance of animal communication that often involves dishonesty.)  But according to this article on animal communication, Amotz Zahavi has argued that evolutionarily stable dishonest communication is impossible – I don’t know exactly what the bounds of this claim are, but it sounds reminiscent of the Kantian argument for why lying is wrong.

Of course, even if some of this communication reaches the level of Gricean speaker-meaning, none of it seems to constitute full-fledged language.  The wikipedia article on <A href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_language>animal language</a> seems to make this clear, though again the categories that are studied seem like they might be slightly puzzling to philosophers of language.  But I would guess there is good potential for interdisciplinary work in this area.

Posted by Kenny Easwaran in Uncategorized

4 Comments »

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4 Responses to “Animal Communication”

  1. anon333 says:

    “Animal communication is any behavior on the part of one animal that has an effect on the current or future behavior of another animal.”

    You mean like giving birth? That certainly has an effect on the future behavior of another animal (the progeny). But surely that’s not communication.

    Silly scientist. Get back in the lab and out of my armchair!

  2. Kent Bach says:

    Kenny,

    It wasn’t exactly collaborative (I was being snooty if not snotty), but here’s a NYRB exchange on this very subject that I had some 30 years ago

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/8124

    with the famous zoologist J. Z. Young:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Zachary_Young

  3. cathalcom says:

    Pretty astonishing development on this front:

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/05/monkey-sentence.html

  4. Kenny Easwaran says:

    cathalcom – it definitely seems like some interesting results, though the discussion on Language Log suggests that the media is overplaying that study (the link you provide does a good job of mentioning that the authors of the study never talk about sentences or syntax, even though the press release seems to).

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005443.html

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