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One of my favorite characters was Dr

5th May 2022

One of my favorite characters was Dr

Doolittle in a series of books written by Hugh Lofting. Doolittle's ability to communicate with animals utterly fascinated me, together with his strange adventures in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh or in Africa. The possibility of really communicating with animals has tantalized me ever since. As I came to know over the years, we can't actually communicate in a human sense with any other animals. Of course some animals can learn commands and some seem to know their names. Some certainly know our voices and can tell us apart, and we can read their behaviors and sounds. And to an extent they have learned behaviors that elicit responses they want from me, pretty much limited to food and petting.

I know when my cats are hungry or when my dog wants to go out

But we've pretty much hit a brick wall in terms of syntactical communication – stringing together ideas with verbs and nouns and modifiers, discussing future and past and so forth. Some gorillas and chimps have famously learned some sign language, but as I mentioned earlier the meanings are blurry news and a lot depends on the interpretation of the trainer.

The fact that we can't understand dolphins doesn't mean they aren't discussing all manner of things, both inside their heads – talking to themselves like we do – and in the wide ocean

The most intriguing exceptions in the animal kingdom are cetaceans: the dolphins and whales. Their brains are as big or bigger than ours and more complex at the neurological level. They very clearly communicate with each other and the more we study them, the more complex their communication seems to be.

Rather oddly, in my view, Noam Chomsky, deemed the greatest linguist of the modern era by many, and one of the deepest thinkers about thought who has ever lived, flatly denies that the cetaceans have the sort of capacity for language that we do.

I know I don't have the academic credentials or standing to challenge him, but I can't help but think he shows a singular lack of imagination. Due to physiology they can't display facial expressions or talk with their hands and have no need or ability for writing – but we do know they can carry on conversations with each other on two frequencies at once. That would be like me delivering two talks on different subjects simultaneously and you understanding both. We do know they have names for each other and researchers other than Chomsky believe they have discovered syntax in killer whale language, phrases that seem to ask questions and answer them. Though again, we don't know what they are saying.

I stumbled on that discovery of syntax while I was researching my book Whale Falls, and thinking about why some people regard dolphins and whales as our peers and others think of them as sushi. That led to the theme of my subsequent novel, She Walks on Water, in which I imagined how actual communication with dolphins might play out.

The ability to communicate emotion in some form and how we react to it, how intelligent we deem a creature to be, has a good bit to do with our willingness to eat them. The taboo against cannibalism is nearly universal, and even those few cannibalistic tribes like the Anazazi in the American southwest, or some New Guineans, generally only ate their enemies, and those enemies almost certainly spoke a different language. Most of us in this room are probably very unlikely to eat dogs and cats, or gorillas and chimps, but they are dietary items in other parts of the world as are dolphins and whales.