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interspecies communication In the arts—Welcome

A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh...

Welcome to the place at which The Muse Of Language Arts addresses issues and questions about the topics of interspecies communication and its place in the arts.


about this feature

In this feature, The Muse Of Language Arts explores whether people communicate with other animals or with plants by means of verbal, physical, or other kinds of exchanges. The Muse also explores whether communication with other animals, if any, includes the exchange of art.

Currently, a great scientific and public debate is raging about whether human and nonhuman animals or plants communicate with each other. Of less interest generally is the question of whether they communicate art or information about art.

The focus of this exploration is on the latter question—on the artistic aspects of human-nonhuman communication. Since there can be no artistic interchange unless there is communication generally, the question of artistic communication is being explored here in combination with the question of communication at large; both subjects go hand-in-hand because you can't have one without the other.

A large variety of different kinds of communication are being explored by scientists, linguists, philosophers, and other researchers. Their major emphasis in current debates is on communication by means of symbolic languages, but their investigative scope also includes other forms of communication and various media such as graphic imagery, actions, sounds, drawings, or paintings.

Cutting-edge scientific research on these subjects is underway and much has been learned that contradicts previous assumptions of scholars and other thinkers on these subjects. More species are being investigated. Old ideas and conventional wisdom are being challenged, and many previous research findings are being overturned. Some of these researchers are uncovering significant similarities between human child development and the communications capacities, behaviors, skills, insights, understandings, thoughts, opinions, information, humor or other emotions that are learned or possessed by non-human animals.

The ability of different species to communicate inevitably raises questions about what is communicated and how it is communicated. Questions are being asked and answered about which kinds of behaviors, skills, insights, understandings, thoughts, opinions, information, humor or other emotions are exchanged between species, what species are doing which kinds of communicating, and how they are doing it.

One of the key sets of questions about inter- and intraspecies communication arises in connection with the arts. Some humans think that certain non-human animals possess the ability to create works, perform behaviors, or generate sounds that these humans recognize as forms of art. Reciprocally, certain non-human animals seem to behave as though they understand and recognize art in certain works, behaviors, or sounds generated by humans—the same works, behaviors, and sounds that other humans collectively identify as human-generated art.

But sadly, little solid research is currently underway that addresses the communication of art between species because so little is known about inter- and intraspecies communication that the emphasis must first be on basics. So far, the actuality of communication of art between humans and non-humans remains largely a matter of speculation.

Clarifying issues regarding the communication of art between species that need to be addressed in the future is one objective of this feature.

The mystery of interspecies communication is a complex scientific and philosophical puzzle involving the subjective quality of conscious experience, not just quantities that can be measured. We aren't even sure of all the questions to ask or of all the avenues to explore. We can't know now whether scientific research will someday be able to objectively confirm that certain species do or do not possess these capabilities; but neither can we be sure that it won't. We may never unlock this puzzle, but we can't deny that there's a vital need to try.

About inter- and intraspecies communication and art

Broadly speaking, communication is defined as imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs; communications are things that are interchanged, or transmitted.

In a biological sense, communication is defined narrowly as an activity by one organism that changes or has the potential to change the behavior of other organisms; it's focus is the transfer of information from one cell or molecule to another.

In this biological sense, there are two classes of communication:

  • Interspecies communication is communication between animals or plants of one species and animals or plants of different species.
  • Intraspecies communication is communication between animals of the same species or plants of the same species.

This is the sense in which intrer-and intraspecies communications are explored in this feature, except that here the transfer is considered to take place at the level of the organism as a whole, not at the level of the cell.


a conversation with Alex

It is not unusual for some parrot species to talk in a restricted, narrow way, in that they can pronounce recognizable words or phrases spontaneously or on cue from their trainers. This faculty is the source of the expression parrot, meaning a person who, without thought or understanding, merely repeats the words or imitates the actions of another.

Some bird species give us every reason to believe that they are conscious, self-aware, sentient, and sapient, but they only parrot; they mimic human speech. Bird species such as macaws, cockatoos, parakeets, cockatiels, and crows, mimic human voices but don't seem to actually talk in the full sense of the word.

Alex is different. Alex is a talking parrot. Alex does more than parrot; he can hold meaningful, intelligent conversations with people.

To get an idea of how this kind of interspecies communication can work, take a look at the video below. This video is a brief sample of a real interspecies communication underway.



Alex The Talking Parrot

Alex is not alone; if properly educated, members of several parrot species, can carry on conversations with humans, and they don't just mimic the human voice; they carry on an informal and interactive interchange of thoughts, information, ideas, etc. by means of spoken words. Parrots who talk, not just mimic, listen to human speech and answer in sensible, recognizable, well-formed words and phrases, even though their voice apparatus is not physiologically human.

Another parrot named Einstein, who currently lives in New York, has a vocabulary of over a thousand words. He is very intelligent and an especially good conversationalist. Alex and Einstein are African Gray parrots. Properly educated African Grays are especially talented at carrying on interspecies conversations.

African Gray parrots are not alone in the parrot world as far as their ability to carry on meaningful conversations with humans is concerned. Hill MynasAsian birds that belong to the starling family sturnidaemake up another such group. Some starling myna subspecies make extremely gifted conversationalists.

To parrot is to repeat or imitate without thought or understanding; a person or non-human animal who parrots merely repeats the words or imitates the actions of another without understanding what he is saying. Since some parrots don't parrot, it would appear that the word parrot doesn't apply to all parrot species.

And, as we shall see by exploring other pages of this feature, there is reason to believe that not just birds can converse with people.

  • Explore a demonstration of communication between humans and other species at The Muse Of Language Arts page called Can We Talk To The Animals: click here.


more about alex

We're sorry to report that Alex passed away of natural causes on September 6, 2007 at the early age of 31.

  • Learn more about his accomplishments and about those of his researcher-trainer, animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, by visiting the Wikipedia web site: click here.


Can nonhuman animals really talk to each other or to humans?—a demonstration

What does it mean to talk? People use the term talk loosely; it can mean many things. To talk is to:

  • Communicate or exchange ideas or information by speaking.
  • Consult or confer.
  • Communicate ideas by means other than speech, as by writing, signs, or signals.
  • Make sounds imitative or suggestive of speech.
  • Express in words; utter.
  • Use (a specified language or idiom) in speaking or conversing.
  • Discuss.

In this feature, The Muse uses the word talk in the general sense, to consult or confer or communicate. The Muse takes the position that there are cases in which nonhuman animals can and do talk to humans or to each other about the arts.

Most people are skeptical about such claims. theyare confident that people communicate with each other by talking, but many are skeptical about whether people and non-human animals or plants can communicate by talking, or indeed in any manner at all.

Some people—among them deep thinkers—even doubt that communication takes place between humans. The work of the great Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, casts doubt on whether it's possible to expect excessive precision from any human expression. According to Wittgenstein's line of thinking, humans are no more justified in believing that they are capable of of intraspecies communication with other humans than they are justified in thinking that other species are not capable of inter- or intraspecies communication.

With the possible exception of solipsists and adherents to Herr Wittgenstein's philosophy, few people seriously doubt that communication takes place between humans, at least on a practical level. It's when such claims are made for communication between humans and nonhumans that many insightful, enlightened, and thoughtful observers experience pangs of doubt.

So, to clear the air, it is necessary to establish the credibility of interspecies communication. Can art be communicated between species? The Muse has chosen to establish the credibility of this hypothesis by means of a demonstration.

  • Explore a demonstration of verbal communication between species at The Muse Of Language Arts page called Can We Talk To The Animals?: click here.

still in doubt?

If you believe that interspecies communication by means of language is impossible and you're still in doubt after you visit the page called Can We Talk To The Animals, The Muse invites you to express your opinions and explain your reasons at the Language Arts Discussion Group: click here.

ETAF Recommends

A DVD about communication between nonhuman animals and humans

A DVD about nonhuman animal consciousness, thinking, and feeling

The thesis of this book, written by a scientist, is that nonhuman animals have the same emotions as humans. It explains how humans can sense animal emotions and why they should.

A topnotch review and introduction to the science of interspecies communication

Principles of Animal Communication, by Jack W. Bradbury and Sandra L. Vehrencamp is a biology text book about the physical and mathematical principles involved in animal communication as applied to a broad set of perspectives, including biology, physics, chemistry, neurobiology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, and economics. It is aimed at upper-level undergraduate or beginning graduate students that can be used as the basis for a general introduction to animal communication studies or for more specialized and advanced courses.

The book's focus is on communication between nonhuman animals of the same or different species, not on communication between humans and other animals, which is The Muse's focus in these pages. Nevertheless, it is an excellent text for readers who want to gain insight into how far science has progressed in the subjects treated or who want to dig deeply into the foundations of this emerging field, and should not be overlooked.

Topics that are treated include the physics and physiology of signal production, propagation, and reception, economics of cooperating communicators, and the complications arising when sender and receiver do not have identical interests during communication.

A variety of signal analysis and evolutionary methods are explained and demonstrated by examples. It integrates all of these aspects of animal communication in its treatment of animal signal evolution. All sensory modalities are discussed. Unresolved issues for future research are identified.

Illustrated and cross-referenced, with an extensive bibliography and suggestions for further reading. Almost 900 pages.

Pricey, but well worth it to any serious investigator.

You may want to skip through the book just to get a feeling for the subject. If your interests are not intense enough to justify purchasing a copy, look for it at a university or public library.




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