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Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals

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"Slobodchikoff's ground-breaking research" (Jonathan Balcombe) shows us that animals have much to teach us about language. Groundbreaking research has been done teaching animals human language, but what about the other way around? Studies have shown that lizards, squid, monkeys, and birds are talking to each other, communicating information about food, predators, squabbles, "Slobodchikoff's ground-breaking research" (Jonathan Balcombe) shows us that animals have much to teach us about language. Groundbreaking research has been done teaching animals human language, but what about the other way around? Studies have shown that lizards, squid, monkeys, and birds are talking to each other, communicating information about food, predators, squabbles, and petty jealousies. These animal languages are unique and highly adaptive. By exploring them, we come to appreciate the basis of our own languages; understanding or even "speaking" them allows us to get closer to the other species who inhabit this planet with us. The implications of animals having language are enormous. It has been one of the last bastions separating "us" from "them." Slobodchikoff's studies of the communication system of prairie dogs over twenty-five years have attracted a considerable amount of attention from the media, including a one-hour documentary on his work produced by BBC and Animal Planet. In Chasing Doctor Dolittle, he posits that the difference is one of degree, not the vast intellectual chasm that philosophers have talked about for millennia. Filled with meticulous research, vivid examples and daring conclusions, this book will challenge the reader's assumptions and open up new possibilities of understanding our fellow creatures.


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"Slobodchikoff's ground-breaking research" (Jonathan Balcombe) shows us that animals have much to teach us about language. Groundbreaking research has been done teaching animals human language, but what about the other way around? Studies have shown that lizards, squid, monkeys, and birds are talking to each other, communicating information about food, predators, squabbles, "Slobodchikoff's ground-breaking research" (Jonathan Balcombe) shows us that animals have much to teach us about language. Groundbreaking research has been done teaching animals human language, but what about the other way around? Studies have shown that lizards, squid, monkeys, and birds are talking to each other, communicating information about food, predators, squabbles, and petty jealousies. These animal languages are unique and highly adaptive. By exploring them, we come to appreciate the basis of our own languages; understanding or even "speaking" them allows us to get closer to the other species who inhabit this planet with us. The implications of animals having language are enormous. It has been one of the last bastions separating "us" from "them." Slobodchikoff's studies of the communication system of prairie dogs over twenty-five years have attracted a considerable amount of attention from the media, including a one-hour documentary on his work produced by BBC and Animal Planet. In Chasing Doctor Dolittle, he posits that the difference is one of degree, not the vast intellectual chasm that philosophers have talked about for millennia. Filled with meticulous research, vivid examples and daring conclusions, this book will challenge the reader's assumptions and open up new possibilities of understanding our fellow creatures.

30 review for Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals

  1. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    I was excited to read this book because of the topic and because Con Slobodchikoff is awesome, but this was ridiculously disappointing. Go read his actual papers and the papers in the bibliography of this book, but don't actually read this book. I don't know how a person who regularly gets published in peer-reviewed journals could write something so imprecise and confusing! This is like a first draft that he wrote while drunk, high, and sleep-deprived at 4 am, except someone decided to publish i I was excited to read this book because of the topic and because Con Slobodchikoff is awesome, but this was ridiculously disappointing. Go read his actual papers and the papers in the bibliography of this book, but don't actually read this book. I don't know how a person who regularly gets published in peer-reviewed journals could write something so imprecise and confusing! This is like a first draft that he wrote while drunk, high, and sleep-deprived at 4 am, except someone decided to publish it like that instead of, you know... EDITING THE BOOK. First of all, who is this book for? Can anyone figure out the target audience? It's written at a very young/basic level in some respects, and he'll go out of his way to (badly and confusingly) define simple terms or make sentences sound terrible just to avoid using a "big" word. A lot of sentences sound like they were written by a lazy teenager bullshitting a paper 10 minutes before they had to turn it in. Incorrect commas, needlessly wordy sentences, clauses with strings of words that don’t say anything (the kind of thing you’d see in a first draft, especially if the draft was written with a voice-to-text program because these kinds of sentences sound normal when spoken but look terrible in a book), sentences that are technically not wrong but that sound bad because of how he strings together a lot of short, imprecise words, etc. A lot of this book is very imprecise. I know what he’s talking about but only because I’ve read actual papers, and the target audience of this book seems to be people who have never read a paper in their lives. He expects his readers to have never heard of things like the scientific method and the entire concept of statistics, but at the same time he’s so imprecise that it would be difficult for that kind of extreme layperson to know what he’s talking about. It doesn't make sense to give this book to a younger kid or an extreme layperson because it's written so awkwardly that none of the "basic" explanations make any sense unless you already know what he's trying to talk about. He'll make vague references to concepts and historical controversies that I understood because I've read other books on the topic, but the layperson who was born yesterday and needs to have things like natural selection defined for them (in multiple paragraphs that you wouldn't be able to understand unless you already knew the definition, in which case the paragraphs are unnecessary anyway) would have no idea. TL;DR: The presumed target audience for this book-- people who were born yesterday and don't know what simple words mean but also somehow have enough background knowledge to understand vague and badly written explanations -- LITERALLY CANNOT EXIST BY DEFINITION. And then there's the actual content. Slobodchikoff gives many examples of communication and attempts to claim that they all count as language. This is difficult since he never actually chooses a definition of language that he wants to use. At first he says that he counts any intentional communication as language ("intentionality" can also mean "aboutness", but he uses "intentional" in the usual sense meaning "on purpose"). This would be a very unconventional definition of language, but hey, at least he picked a definition and will presumably defend it (although it's very difficult to prove that anything is intentional without mind-reading or maybe some VERY well-constructed experiments that aren't usually possible). But no, that's not actually what he means, because he starts to pull other criteria into his defenses of various forms of communication as language. He'll point out when the communication of a species has arbitrary symbols, syntax or grammar, displacement, productivity, etc., presumably to appeal to people who prefer a more standard definition of or list of criteria for language, but he'll also include things like "body language" and signals that are clearly not arbitrary and say that they're language. He'll say that anytime an animal communicates about their intentions it's "linguistic". All of this could have been avoided if he used an outline for his actual argument. Without all the words and examples it's very obvious that he hasn't really defined the terms of his argument. He also consistently falls back on dishonest strawmanning of people and concepts. He'll define a concept incorrectly and then argue against the incorrect version, which anyone with 5 seconds and access to Wikipedia could disprove. In one instance he tried to say that Shannon's information was the amount of uncertainty instead of the amount of reduction in uncertainty. I don't know that much about information theory but I knew that sounded ridiculous, so I glanced at Wikipedia for 5 seconds (like Slobodchikoff's editor could have done) and figured out he was bullshitting. He said that Morton's motivation-structural rules only referred to frequency and tried to apply to everything when they explicitly refer to frequency and noisiness, and are only general ideas applicable to the short-range affective vocalizations of many mammals and birds. Frequency and noisiness: that's TWO things. It's not a long list of complicated rules. Remembering 9 things out of 10 would have been understandable, but only remembering one thing out of two and then not realizing that you forgot one? How??? The worst was his obviously dishonest portrayal of functional reference. Anyone who knows enough about the topic of animal communication to be reading this book and not be confused by its vagueness would know what functional reference is. Example: you walk into an alien bar and you don't know the language. Eventually you notice that most of the time someone says "glorp" in their speech, the bartender gives them beer. You run a statistical analysis and there is a strong correlation between "glorp" and beer. You don't know what "glorp" actually means. It could mean "beer", "I want beer", "can I please have a beer", "can you get me a beer", "drink", "pint", or any number of things. It might even be one syllable in a longer word that has to do with beer and you didn't notice the rest of the word for some reason (maybe only some syllables of the alien language are spoken in frequencies that humans can hear). All you know is that glorp FUNCTIONALLY refers to beer because the aliens act AS IF it refers to beer. At this point in your ethological study, that's all you can say for sure without the ability to mind-read or to capture the aliens and try to make an experiment that will tell you if glorp actually means beer or something else (this is what one chicken experiment had to do to learn that their 'aerial predator' alarm call referred to the location of the predator being high or in the air rather than the type of predator, because they made that call when a picture of a terrestrial mammal was shown in the air.) What Slobodchikoff says, even though he works in this field and 100% knows better, is that people only use functional reference because they don't want to admit that animals (other than themselves, presumably) are smart enough to refer to anything or to have mental representations of referents. He uses an obviously fake explanation of why people use functional reference in order to portray other researchers in his own field in 2012 as if they were stuck in a hierarchical evolutionary paradigm from pre-Darwinian England. He uses functional reference in his own papers! He must read other papers in his field! There's no way he doesn't know better, it's just blatantly dishonest. Sorry I'm not a mind-reader and I can't tell from a field study whether a vervet's leopard call actually means "a leopard is coming" or "quick, climb a tree!". All I know from field observation is that they act as if it refers to one or both of those things, which is the definition of functional reference, so I must be a horrible person who thinks every species but my own is stupid, apparently. He repeatedly claims that "scientists" (all scientists in the world in every field?) say that "animals" (every single animal? Snails, squirrels, ants, blue whales, humans, naked mole rats, poison dart frogs, box jellyfish, chinchillas, chihuahuas, millipedes, eagles, chimpanzees, starfish, tuna, house cats ... the ENTIRE kingdom of Animalia? really?) can or can't do something. Nobody in their right mind would ever say that "animals" as a group have something in common other than being multicellular eukaryotes with a common ancestor. Slobodchikoff also accuses scientists in the present of having opinions that were popular in the 1800's like regarding humans as special snowflakes who exist outside the realm of normal evolutionary biology and even a sort of Cartesian species-solipsism in which only the special humans even have functioning brains and everyone else is just robots somehow acting like they can think without actually thinking. I'm also going to point out that when the special-snowflake idea of humans was popular, it was specifically about white people... just saying, not a good think to associate modern scientists with; and if you hear someone express those opinions you should call them out by name instead of blaming it on all "scientists". Another reason this book is not user-friendly is that Slobodchikoff almost never mentions anybody's name. Any logical person when writing a book like this that consists largely of an informal lit review would use parenthetical citations or footnotes or at the very least say the authors' names in the text when referencing their papers. Slobodchikoff barely ever does this. He'll spend entire chapters talking about other people's research but make it ridiculously difficult for readers to look up the papers. In one part he talks about Cheney, Seyfarth, and Marler's vervet research. They're famous enough that I knew who he was talking about, but he just said they were "researchers". He'll talk about papers and say "scientists did this", or even more weirdly he'll say where people are from without giving their names like "a group of scientists from Würzburg, Germany". You'll tell me what CITY they came from but not who they are? At least give me the last name of the first author! How am I supposed to look them up based on LOCATION??? Aside from not giving people credit and making the book cumbersome for readers to use as an actual resource, it sort of erases the fact that studies and methods have histories related to the histories of the researchers. I realize Slobodchikoff isn't writing a history of science book, but the lack of name-dropping is so weird and unnatural that it has to be deliberate and I can't think of why. All it does besides making the book hard to use is create the impression that "scientists" are a hivemind of interchangeable people, which might benefit his baseless claims about "scientists think this and that" but not really. I don't know if the lack of names is really "dishonest", but it's definitely annoying and generally a stupid thing to do. (Again it looks like a teenager bullshitting a paper at the last minute - "I remember reading about this experiment but I can't remember who did it, so I'll just write 'scientists' and fix it later"). As for the general thesis/premise/whatever, I kind of get where he's coming from but I think it's misguided. He wants to bridge the gap between "us" and "them", and a human-centered definition of "language" is the last thing holding that gap, so he thinks he can get rid of it by showing that "they" have language. This would be fine if he and the "gap" used the same definition of language, but they don't. He mentions that whenever he tells people about prairie dogs' semantic abilities, they gain respect for a species they previously thought of as a pest. That's fine for prairie dogs, but for their own sake humans shouldn't be basing their respect for others on the presence of absence of language in the first place. I think there is a much stronger argument for abandoning "language" altogether as a useless category. It's too wrapped up in human languages at this point, since the entire history of defining language has been accidentally or purposefully centered around the traits shared by human languages. It's almost impossible to come up with a good definition that isn't human-centric and also isn't so vague that it includes all communication. It's not useful to argue over who has language and who doesn't when you should be figuring out which combinations of traits different communication systems have and how they work together. Stop arguing about "language" and look at the traits: displacement, arbitrariness, syntax, productivity, etc. Which species have which traits and why? Which species do and don't need certain traits in their communication? Instead of asking who is most like humans or which communication system is the "best", look at how they're adaptive. Don't expect animals to expend energy on the ability to learn things that they don't need in their environments. The interesting questions come from these traits, not from taking the specific combination of traits that you find in your own communication systems and holding up that one combination as the gold standard for other species to aspire to in order to get an 'official language medal' with no evolutionary meaning. I don't think there has ever been a definition of "language" that was unbiased and evolutionarily meaningful. We have plenty of other ways to talk about communication that make sense and apply to the world as it is instead of a world where the goal of all evolution is to be more like humans, so let's ditch "language" and explore the diversity and flexibility of communication in the world. Yes, I realize this review is also wordy and repetitive, but this is a rant on the internet and I'm not trying to publish it. So shh.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Barbara Adde

    Really like the premise of this book: "That there suddenly arose an unbridgeable gap between us and the rest of life just doesn't make sense. After all, every other system in humans has it's roots in other species, and can often be traced up the evolutionary line." (Page 43) Really like the premise of this book: "That there suddenly arose an unbridgeable gap between us and the rest of life just doesn't make sense. After all, every other system in humans has it's roots in other species, and can often be traced up the evolutionary line." (Page 43)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Pauline

    Very interesting if you like reading about animals, and wonder how much we have in common with them. I had initially thought the author was going to be able to show that animals have language, but it turns out what he provides is evidence that is consistent with their having language, but as he points out more than once, we have no "Rosetta Stone" to enable us to decipher more than a general idea of the content of animal communication. As we learn more, however, and have to revise long-held beli Very interesting if you like reading about animals, and wonder how much we have in common with them. I had initially thought the author was going to be able to show that animals have language, but it turns out what he provides is evidence that is consistent with their having language, but as he points out more than once, we have no "Rosetta Stone" to enable us to decipher more than a general idea of the content of animal communication. As we learn more, however, and have to revise long-held beliefs about what animals are not able to do, he expects that we will eventually come to recognize that they do have language, and possible consciousness and self-awareness as well. There were places where I really wasn't that interested in learning the details of things like mating rituals, where we clearly know the overall topic but very little more. His discussions of prairie dog communication, and how researchers have identified differences based on no more than the color of the shirt on a human walking by, which certainly points to a higher level of information encoded in their communication than most people would have imagined, were far more interesting to me.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    We all know animals communicate, but do they have language? This author wants to prove to yo that they do. The first chapters about what language is were a little slow but then it got more interesting with examples. It was a fun discussion in book club. 3.5 and recommended for anyone who wants to think more about animals language.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Todd

    An amazing book with thought-provoking stories and analysis. Sometimes he goes a bit far in his argument, but he never does so without strong argument and basis. The kind of book you can enjoy even if you disagree with some of the conclusions.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lilac

    I really liked this book. I've always been frustrated that humans think that we're the only ones with language, and that we think we are somehow unique. The research presented in it is fascinating, and, of course, incomplete. I think I felt some frustration at it not being a book about proof and definitive conclusions, but it's a great discussion of the possibilities and ways to think about what might be our blind spots. I really liked this book. I've always been frustrated that humans think that we're the only ones with language, and that we think we are somehow unique. The research presented in it is fascinating, and, of course, incomplete. I think I felt some frustration at it not being a book about proof and definitive conclusions, but it's a great discussion of the possibilities and ways to think about what might be our blind spots.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lori Schiele

    The author, who has spent over 20 years studying prairie dogs, uses his own research as well as research of other scientists to explain his belief that animals are capable of language, although in nearly all circles within the scientific community, he stands alone in this belief. He uses numerous anecdotes and varied species, both vertebrate and invertebrate, everything from prairie dogs and chimpanzees to dogs to birds and even ants.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Xaverius

    Demasiada especulación para mi gusto pero veo difícil leerlo y no acabar convencido de que subestimamos el lenguaje animal. Sobre si realmente vamos a poder traducirlo en el futuro ni repajolera idea. PD: LAS JIRAFAS SON MUDAS.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Darshan Elena

    A fun read that speaks to the intelligence of animals (other than humans) and the various languages that distinct species use to express their emotions and thoughts to one another. I can't wait for translation technologies to offer English to Wombat; just a matter of time, I believe! A fun read that speaks to the intelligence of animals (other than humans) and the various languages that distinct species use to express their emotions and thoughts to one another. I can't wait for translation technologies to offer English to Wombat; just a matter of time, I believe!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tracey

    SDMB LawMonkey recco

  11. 5 out of 5

    Pam

    A great introduction to language and how animals use language. Written clearly and full of interesting anecdotes.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sara Jose

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Wagner

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ronan

  15. 5 out of 5

    Grook

  16. 5 out of 5

    Chris Bergman

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lucie Čadková

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kelli

  19. 4 out of 5

    Janice Koler-matznick

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kianna

  21. 5 out of 5

    Thammons

  22. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

  23. 5 out of 5

    Beth Allen

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ellen Dittrich

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mary-Margaret

  26. 5 out of 5

    Gina

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bryan

  28. 5 out of 5

    Leslie Padorr

  29. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Datta

  30. 4 out of 5

    Maria Andrews

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