Do Animals Have Language?

To us modern folks it seems perfectly natural that we, the highly evolved primates that we are, would eventually develop a sophisticated means of communication (beyond throwing feces). Linguists, scholars, and language experts will tell you that humans have a monopoly on language, and that no other creature uses it. That is not to say that other animals do not communicate. On the contrary, practically every organism on earth communicates in some form, even plants. But do crickets have a language in their dulcet chirping sounds? Are howler monkeys speaking to one another, or are they just signalling danger or mating calls? How would we ever know?

In 1971, Penny Patterson began working with a gorilla named Koko, and communication was established when Koko learned sign language. Over the years, Koko has learned over 1000 signs and appears to have about 2,000 words in her vocabulary, according to the Gorilla Foundation website. Koko can apparently tell someone when she is tired or hungry, but also that her favorite color is red, and how she felt when she lost All Ball, her first kitten. We humans have, in our arrogance, assumed that only we have true emotions or the means to express them. But it appeared that Koko was entirely capable of expressing her grief. Decades later, the project still manages to amaze the world.

During an episode of “A Way With Words” that aired in October 2016, a listener called to ask whether his parrot really understood language, or was it simply imitating it. Host Grant Barrett, after listening to the caller’s story, maintained his view that animals, at least parrots, do not use language even though they may be capable of communicating. So what is a word, as the caller put it? What is the difference between a sound and a word? Huh? Meh. Ack! These are all sounds you can make, but do they mean anything? Of course they do, within some context. For instance, “huh” in the States usually means, “can you repeat that?” “Meh” is more modern, and I believe it is used to convey ambivalence. “Ack!” is from Bloom County, and I think it means “ack!” You’d have to ask Bill the Cat.

Perhaps we are unique. It is possible that even though Koko can communicate with her human handlers, she may not truly understand the meaning of the words she uses. For now, we cannot know either way. The only means of understanding what is going on in her brain is through her language. But that’s true for any human as well. We struggle with our words. They’re on the tip of our tongue. The mind usually works a lot faster than the connection to the muscles in the face and tongue that allow us to form words. Speech and writing can only transmit a finite amount of information, even with the massive collection of text we have at our disposal. Most of what has been written by humanity has been abridged by the limitations of our ability to focus our thoughts and transmit that information to the page or elsewhere.

This brings me to music. Music has been referred to as a language. Indeed it has its own “alphabet”, musical notation. Like any language, many aspects of it have evolved over the centuries, seeing changes in style, notation, and the use of polyphony – more than one voice or instrument at a time. In the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writer Steven Spielberg explored the notion that extraterrestrial life might be able to communicate with other intelligent life by using tones in sequence and patterns. Music. The ships arrived at various times around the globe and delivered a “message” in the form of a unique and now familiar melody. In the film’s climax, there ensued a lively exchange of musical notes in seemingly random patterns. (Randomness is in the ear of the beholder.)

Spielberg’s concept of how two very different species might communicate was probably the first of its kind. Others would follow. If we are ever visited by aliens, I like to think we’d have a chance at not being completely annihilated. How will we understand them when we have so much trouble understanding one another? Hopefully whoever has the ability to travel from the stars to get here has also listened to our broadcasts over the decades. If they have, they will have heard everything, or almost all of our vast catalog of recordings, everything from elation to heartache. I’m guessing the music might have spoken to them far beyond the words’ ability to do so.

But Koko doesn’t sing. She signs. Sign language might bridge the gap, assuming the extraterrestrials have hands or appendages of some sort. For all we know, jellyfish are from space, and they have been trying to tell us something important all along. From where we stand, come to think of it, how could we ever hope to understand? We need to reach out, pushing against the boundary of what we think we know about the universe, blundering into the unknown in hopes of the happy accident of a breakthrough. How long did we wait before we made contact with our nearest neighbors? Is it as simple as Spielberg made it look? Is it just a matter of making the right sounds in the correct order, hoping to make some sense? Isn’t that exactly what language is?

What’s in Your Wallet?

I don’t wish to alarm anyone, but our economy is a bit of an illusion. Goods and services are being exchanged for currency, which is mostly held in bank accounts as electronic records, instead of a proper certificates and legal tender. Many of us have abandoned cash, opting instead in favor of credit and debit for monetary exchanges. Putting aside the astounding amount of consumer household debt in the US for another time, I want to talk about the economy of everyday life.

A very long time ago, people exchanged one good or service for another in a bartering-type system. For example, a farmer grows cabbage and potatoes, but he needs other commodities, like rice and wheat, milk, cooking oil, and fuel. So he goes to the market and exchanges his goods for the things he needs. This works well until he decides to hire someone to help him pick his crops. The farm hand cannot realistically be paid in cabbages, so a form of currency is needed. The various precious metals, copper, silver, and gold, are established as acceptable remuneration for any debt or fee, and would eventually be codified to a standard we accept as legal tender.

Fast-forward a little, and we find ourselves in our current state where money is held in accounts, not in safes or mattresses. When we pay for something, we whip out a debit card (if there’s money in that account) or credit card and authorize payment. We don’t really think about it, but what’s keeping all this going? Maybe it’s just my mind being manipulated by watching Mr. Robot,  and I do get a little anxious with each episode, but I’m bothered by the way our modern banking system seems to control everything. And what’s stopping the whole thing from falling apart? (I’m searching for a specific passage in a science fiction novel where I read that the end of the world was not caused by plague or war, but by cascading failures of electronic banking computers. The entire world economy was in memory somewhere, and something went wrong, horribly, catastrophically wrong. I was sure it was Arthur C Clarke, but I haven’t found the reference.)

My point is that the economy is extremely vulnerable. If you recall 2008 when the housing market crashed, the whole thing was caused by bad loans and greedy investors. If it happened once (and it has repeatedly) it can, and will, happen again. Except this time maybe it will be caused by hackers like the ones in Mr. Robot. What will happen if money is useless? What is money, really? Like I said, that legal tender concept is nice, but it’s just paper. And coins are not worth much. They contain very little precious metal, and no silver or gold. Pennies aren’t even made from copper anymore. Money is only worth something if the authority backing it says so.

So, let’s imagine what the world would look like if banks stopped working. You couldn’t use a debit card, and there’s no electronic “wallet” or other e-payment. Online bill payment is not an option, and no one accepts checks. The little cash there is might be accepted, but it’s only paper, like I said. In post-WWI Germany, inflation was so high that people used bank notes as fuel to keep warm. Eventually, a new economy would appear. Food and firewood are the new currency. Maybe you can trade some commodity for either. If you have a particular skill like making soap or metalworking, that is definitely worth something. If you’re thinking Fight Club you’re following me.

This vision of the future frightens me. It should frighten everyone, because not many people will thrive in this environment, and those who can are dangerous. This is why the governments of the world are working hard to keep economies flourishing. They will even go so far as to artificially prop up currency valuation or offer bailouts to prevent the unthinkable. By 2009, the US had spent $700 billion from taxpayers to prevent catastrophe (according to the Forbes article, it’s much more). And I think we were closer than is generally known.

When I go to the supermarket to buy coffee or potatoes or strawberries, I am participating in global trade with many different players. Coffee plants do not grow in the continental US. They require a specific climate that is best found in mountain regions in the tropics (high altitude, lots of sun and moisture). Strawberries in February come from Chile. We have to assume that people are getting paid all along the way. But if we paid what is fair – and whose definition of “fair” are we going by – that coffee would cost five times more. And strawberries in February would be cost-prohibitive. But through a careful balance of trade deals and other machinations, we can get what we want, and we don’t worry about what we can’t see, right?

Now I don’t recommend hoarding cash. And I am not condoning a policy of austerity and self-deprivation. That said, I am not the consumerism fan-boy. Capitalism is highly susceptible to greed and corruption. Marxism is also deeply flawed. Wherever there is a monetary system, it seems that people tend to fuck it up. We could theoretically live in a society where everything is traded; no one takes advantage, and there is trust. Borrowing and lending are simplified yet rarely implemented, but everyone buys only what they can afford. In this utopian economy, would money exist? I guess if that world could exist, maybe not. But unfortunately, we live in the real world, and that world must get paid.

But I’m a Cheerleader

Okay, this is kind of bothering me. I got this great idea to write one letter per week to Donald Trump (I’m still getting used to calling him President). It seemed like a good idea at the time. But like Natasha Lyonne’s character in the movie, I’m not quite sure what the rest of society expects from me. I live in a country that is so deeply divided (race relations, political camps, gender issues, and so on), it is quite impossible to stay away from controversial topics. When I visit family – and that happens less frequently these days – we are forced to offer small talk and other useless bullshit so no one gets offended. Invariably, someone does, and merry Christmas!

I wrestled with this for some time. Do I say something? Or do I just show pictures of kittens playing? So I finally decided that I would get involved. But I would attempt to stay neutral and keep it very civil, almost formal. Afterall, I am talking to the President of the United States, the office, if not the man. It’s an important distinction, because the office demands respect. If we do not respect that, our republic may start to crumble. Oh, look, it already has (here are supposed to be some relevant links to various news stories about police brutality or fake news or wage inequality or – oh my GOD, there is just so much that is wrong!)

Therefore, I have started it. I published two letters so far. And I know there are people with strong opinions on both sides, those who fervently support Trump, and those who are incredulous that he is the President. I just could not stand by and not say anything, especially now. But this is truly important. To those who think I’m being too polite: we’ll see how this goes. To those who believe I am a left-wing, candy-ass, libtard crybaby (those are from my family): I am being respectful but honest.

Politics is a dirty, messy business that leaves a bad taste in your mouth if you’ve done it right. God help you if you ever serve in public office. Politics tends to bring out the worst in some people, and yet in brings out the best in others. It may be unfortunate that I’ve turned this once mundane blog into now a gripe-fest. I hope I don’t come across as bitter and cynical, but I am getting older. Thankfully, I have never gotten into politics. I just don’t have the temperament for it. But that doesn’t seem to stop people.

I suppose no one knows what they’re supposed to be until the right time. Well, the time seems to be right, now. If you feel strongly about something, you can do the same. Why am I publishing these letters? Maybe I just wanted to let others know that they can be part of democracy, such as it is. Everyone was supposed to have a voice and take part. Everyone should. I think our world would be better off if everyone did just a small thing. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or life-changing. But when you find it,  you might be surprised by how much it has changed your life, and the world.

An Explanation

Dear Readers,

Let me start by expressing my appreciation to all of you for indulging me in my occasional monologue. My posts in the past have been somewhat eclectic, with topics ranging from my dislike of turkey bacon to heredity to climate change. I enjoy writing, and I believe it’s important for me to use my talent as a service to mankind. Now that we’ve all had a good laugh, I’ll continue.

Last Friday I penned a letter to our new leader, Donald Trump, and I posted it on this blog. Whether or not you support him, I think most people would agree that he needs some help adjusting to his new position. My mission is to, by way of a bona fide miracle, civilize the man, transforming him into someone we can all accept. My quixotic campaign is planned to cover four years. This is not to assume he would not be reelected; I’m just not sure I want it to go that far.

I have in the past struggled to keep politics out of my writings. It’s such a sore point between the two disparate camps within our fractured society. And I earnestly wished to keep politics out of these letters, but there is just so much that needs to be said, and said in as civil a tone as I can muster. I think this is missing from both the President and the media covering him. I realize it’s early, but he has already come out of his corner swinging.

It’s actually very unlikely that my letters will be read by Trump, or even opened by anyone in the White House. And It’s even more impossible that he will read my blog (he hasn’t responded to my Tweets). Anyway, wish me luck. I hope I don’t offend anyone. But I guess I’m not afraid to ruffle the feathers on the top perch.

Thank you

Deoxyribonucleic Acid and You

The great thing about me, about you, and all of us, is that we are made up of the combined heredity of a myriad of people; but moreso, we are made up of two – our moms and dads. Every one of us is a not-so-symmetrical blend of our parents’ DNA. You can see it when you meet the child of someone you have known for years, or for that matter, meeting that friend’s parents, and you will either say that one closely resembles the other, or that they are very different. People have been telling me my whole life – bringing me much distress during my teenage years – that I look very much like my dad. I continued rebuking everyone who pointed out the similarities until I saw it for myself in the mirror one day. It was some facial expression or mannerism, or a combination of many things, but there he was, my dad, looking right back at me. It comes and goes, but deep down I’ve always known.

So it was settled: I had become my father. Naturally, I take after my mom, too. I have her sense of humor and her tastes for music, art, and politics. I share my dad’s love for sardines. Go figure. My brother also has a curious blend of our parents. He got the good hair and the lean, muscular build. I got the brains. Seems fair. It’s all a roll of the dice, unless you subscribe to the principles of eugenics, where children can be customized and engineered, a model for humanity based not on natural selection, but on individual preference. This is a frightening prospect, leaving nothing to chance, manufacturing human beings for a potentially nefarious purpose. This might inspire someone to create a “master race” of superhumans. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth just thinking about it.

Fortunately, or not, depending on your perspective, we must leave it up to fate. From my perspective, being childless, I don’t have to imagine how it could go wrong. I would like to have seen what kind of child my wife and I could have had together. I’m sure it frightens young couples to think about the possibility of seeing manifest the worst aspects of their respective families – perhaps some alcoholism or drug addiction, or mental illness, or a tendency toward violence. Some things may be difficult to avoid. It is believed that personality and inclination are developed through experience. My cousin who has identical twins might disagree. But much of who we are was not packaged with us at birth. For instance, I am much more skeptical now than when I was younger. And I appreciate flavors I used to find disgusting as a child (wasabi, for instance).

When you look through old photos, you can see resemblances. You will see it more and more as time goes on, because in the 21st century, everyone has been photographed at least once in their lifetime. My great-grandparents might not have even owned a camera. A hundred years ago, having a portrait made was a big expense, and not everyone could afford it. If you have pictures of certain family members when they were young, consider those priceless. Nowadays, everyone has a camera in their pocket, and those pictures proliferate the internet. Therefore, as we get older, more photos will be available with better quality, and future generations will be able to see likenesses with greater resolution and clarity than ever before.

We are not carbon copies of either of our parents, but instead a unique blend of them both. Actually, it does go far beyond our parents. I have my paternal grandfather’s nose, and my brother has our maternal great-grandfather’s build. That photo album will reveal more as you go further back in time. But there are more segments of our past beyond the outward appearance. You might have your grandmother’s laugh, or you might have your dad’s sense of humor.

For some reason, I have to say, I have a good ear for music. I am a singer, and I play several instruments. A few people in my dad’s side of the family are musically inclined. It’s really a small percentage. I could say it runs in my family, but there’s no hard evidence to prove it. On the other hand, I’ve met artistic couples whose children show no interest or talent in the arts. I’m grateful for my talents, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But I do wish I were more naturally organized. What little focus I have, I have had to work to achieve it. Being organized definitely does not come naturally to me, even if it is featured among some in my family.

There are a lot of traits we can credit one or both parents for. Most of my features I get from my dad – everything from hair follicles to body shape to culinary inventiveness. Sometimes it seems I am a carbon copy of him. That’s not so bad. He and I are not likely to agree on politics, and he is probably disappointed that I couldn’t give him grandchildren (I think he’s moved on to my brother). But I suspect he also stays up late on his computer, perhaps rambling about some idea that was keeping him awake. It wouldn’t surprise me. After all, I really am my father.