Denise Herzing's TED talk on dolphins inspired this essay and made me think of many larger themes centering on the fascinating lives of the other animals with whom we share our magnificent planet. It also made me deeply appreciate the rapidly growing cross-disciplinary field of anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relationships, and how much there is to learn about our complicated, frustrating, and paradoxical relationships with nonhuman animals (animals).
Some of the "big" questions that came to mind include questions such as: Are "they" (other animals) like us? Do other animals have language? Are dogs smarter than cats or vice versa? Are there "higher" and "lower" animals? Do "smart" animals suffer more than less intelligent animals? How does relative brain size figure into the discussions of the cognitive capacities of animals and their ability to suffer? Comparative research shows clearly that the question at hand is not if other animals are smart and emotional but rather why have various cognitive and emotional capacities evolved. It's time to stop pretending we don't really know if other animals are "smart", can think, or are emotional beings.
In my own research I always keep in mind Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, namely, that the differences among animals are variations in degree rather than kind. What this means is that the differences among animals in their anatomy, physiology, and cognitive and emotional lives are shades of gray, not black and white. So, the bumper sticker for continuity is, "If we have something, "they" have it too."
The state of the animals 2013
As a biologist I always argue there aren't "higher" and "lower" animals because individuals have to do what's needed to be "card carrying" members of their own species. So, are we exceptional and unique? Yes, but so too are other animals. We do things other animals can't do and they do things we can't do. And, we don't have to embellish other animals; we just have to let them show us who they are. We now know mice, rats, and chickens display empathy, fish use their head to tell other fish where there's food (called referential communication), many animals experience emotions ranging from contagious and unbounded joy to deep sadness and grief, animals play "just for the hell of it," New Caledonian crows outdo chimpanzees in making and using sophisticated tools, animals care for disabled members of their group, animals want to be treated fairly and will rebel when they're treated unfairly, fish display different personalities, and the list goes on and on.
Some people call these discoveries "surprising" and often exclaim, "Oh, I didn't think they could do that!" However, if we keep open minds and hearts, they're not really surprising at all. Years ago, people thought only humans made and used tools, were conscious or self-aware, and had sophisticated ways to communicate with one another, and we now know these speciesist views were wrong.
What about the question of language in other animals? This is a hot topic and opinions range from "no way" to "of course they do," based not on only available data but also speciesist ideology. Current data challenge the skeptic's view that we are the only language using animals.
Consider the outstanding research on prairie dogs conducted by Con Slobodchikoff and his students and summarized in his recent book Chasing Dr. Dolittle. Slobodchikoff shows we are not the only animals who use language. In addition to highly verbal and linguistic prairie dogs, other animals - including bees, squid, birds, bats, monkeys, and whales - possess languages of varying complexity. Prairie dogs, for example, have different alarm calls for the various predators who try to eat them, can describe the color of clothes, and can communicate about the body style (tall, thin, or short) of a human being.
Slobodchikoff uses linguist Charles Hockett's thirteen design features of human language and shows how nonhumans share them with us. He notes, " ... we already have the evidence to conclude that a number of animal species have semantic signals and that these signals are arranged according to rules of syntax within different contexts." His arguments should help Dr. Herzing confront the skeptics.
Slobodchikoff also notes that claiming we are an exception, the only language bearing animals, is a myth. He writes, "For us, the idea that other animals have language is a bridge back to the natural world ... "Us" and "Them" ... are not very different at all." Amen. We can indeed "talk" with other animals and they can "talk" with us with us.
It's time to debunk the myth of human exceptionalism, a shallow and self-serving perspective on who we are. Of course we're exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. I've argued we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species exceptionalism or individual exceptionalism, moves that will force us to appreciate other animals for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.
Appreciating and respecting other animals doesn't lessen us at all. It might mean we can't continue to mistreat them in the numerous ways we now do. We must use what we know about other animals on their behalf, to make their lives the very best they can be and to help them to live in peace and safety. We suffer the indignities to which we subject other animals.
This essay was first published here.