Who Needs Words? Crows? You? Wild Gorillas? Alison Krauss?


(Not the sarcastic octopus) 5 Videos (and a few words) exploring the matter…

Nature's Edge Notebook #13

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

Who needs words?

We humans, sometimes.

And crows, apparently.

But not the sarcastic octopus.

Wild gorillas use very few words, say scientists - depending on how you define the word "word."

But various mammals, including not only dolphins and whales but African wild dogs and Norwegian rats, many species of bird, and even spiders and insects are now being discovered by scientists around the world to have complex vocalizations and other sound-wave communication systems so complex that old notions that human language is somehow fundamentally unique are being thrown in doubt.

It's also opening up a broad new field in which scientists are exploring that ancient question: whether and how the mental experience of animals is different from ours:

Are animals' thought-processes, self-reflections, feelings for others, sense of enjoyment, and even possible moral systems and consciousness itself (whatever that is) different only by degree and complexity from ours, or is there a more fundamental divide?

These expanding scientific studies can also be great fun. Animals tickle our fancy in many ways, and often fascinate us.

Most recently, the fact that countless millions of humans around the world click on thousands of videos of animal behavior found on the World Wide Web is itself evidence of some form of intense communication in them - often without "words" or any other sounds from the animals.

Sometimes, for some reason, these videos go straight to the funny bone, and given their vast Internet fan base, it's clear many humans are engrossed.

Here are five short video segments that help explore these matters, in which…

  1. A wild gorilla family drops in on some tourists in Uganda
  2. Two "pre-verbal" baby boys chat away, to their own great delight
  3. Crows play and talk - and a human observer talks about them talking
  4. Another human talks of a sarcastic octopus and of a scientific paradigm shift
  5. A moose family at play is set to Alison Krauss singing about not talking

Even your own feelings as you read this and watch these videos is a kind of evidence in the search for understanding these questions - which inevitably lead to another old question: whether there is ever an absolutely clean divide between "feelings" and "thought," even what seems to be purely "verbal" thought.

Video From the "Impenetrable Forest": Visit From Wild Gorillas

This brief clip posted on You Tube showing a family of wild gorillas paying a visit to a camp in Uganda's "Impenetrable Forest" was flagged for us by our "Nature's Edge" regular, author Eugene Linden.

It starts with a brief on-camera statement from a human.

Before any more words about it, take a look…

Although the wild gorillas don't utter a sound, there's a lot of communication here - and it may be all the more beautiful for the very lack of words.

The human words you hear, apparently from the man holding the camera, are trying to generate more words that may somehow amplify a sense of the powerful and far more engrossing communication the gorillas wordlessly convey.

The fact that the gorillas don't speak may force us to think harder about what they are really doing. For one thing, the silverback seems secure in the implicit understanding of their physically superiority … and it may viscerally remind us of how impressive it can be when a human can make meanings clear without speaking.

At first, it might seem that if you asked 10 different people to write a script of the unspoken thoughts of each gorilla in that video, they would likely be similar; some basic meanings seem, at first, to be clear:

Silverback: OK, let's meet the humans. Don't stand too close… Be polite…

Kid: Hmmm, smells a little different… What odd hair…

Silverback: OK, that's enough, let's go… Etc.

But then compare this to a similar video with two humans in it.

Video of Twin Baby Boys Doing a Little Wordless 'Stand-Up'

Why have millions of people clicked into this next video?

How many have watched it at least twice?

Take a look… Then we'll talk:


Don't read any further until you've looked at that video above with those baby boys. It may spoil it.

But why? There is no verbal plot here. The fun comes without any words.

And who needs words? These baby boys are having a great time without any.

Or rather, with only one - the word "da" - which seems to serve here as a stand-in for all spoken words, as if to say "Insert verbal language here."

Remarkable how the jokester on the left - the one with his back to us - manages to pull off one-liner after one liner and get a laugh from his brother!

Or maybe that's wrong. Maybe he's telling a story, maybe about something nutty their parents did, and his sibling is like, Get outta here! No way!

(Full disclosure: this video showing two siblings was pointed out to me by my sister who is an unreconstructed unrepentant fuggedaboudit shameless "animal person," with a special focus on cats. I'm not exactly sure I could explain in words why that's relevant, but I'm pretty sure it is.)

As with the wild gorillas, one could supply the words for these boys… though when you start to realize that you're less certain, than with the gorillas, exactly what words would represent what the boys are thinking, you may begin to wonder why you were fairly sure what words would have described what the gorillas were thinking.

So far, we've shown just two primate species - wild gorillas and goofy boys. You may feel (being one) that of course all primates are more intelligent than other animals, and so of course can convey intelligent meaning to us, with or without words.

But what about birds - especially those that seem to use lots of words - or something very much like words?

Video of Human Talking About Crows' Many Ways of Talking

Lyanda Haupt, author of "Crow Planet," tells many anecdotes that display crow intelligence of a kind that scientists are barely beginning to understand. She also tells of the many ways crows vocalize beyond the mere "Caw!" we normally think of.

She, being human, has a communication advantage apparently unmatched in any other animal (or so we are inclined to think) - highly complex facial expressions, which she here conveys via Skype.

But of course, her facial expressions aren't verbal "words" either, though scientists now debate whether they might be thought of as visual words, so to speak.

With them - and with gesture and tone of voice, all conveying mood and emphasis - she conveys far more than a few words alone on paper could manage.

In any case, listen to her explications of the complexity of crow-think, crow-play and crow-talk … and how they present new challenges to scientist-think:

It opens with a one of our "Trip-Up-The-Viewer Questions": What is metacognition?

"Metacognition" means thinking about thinking - and it is key to the most effective learning.

Experienced teachers talk of the importance of getting students to begin to think about their own thinking. They say it allows learners to take over and focus their efforts.

Some scientists, as author Eugene Linden reports, are now beginning to consider the possibility that some animals may also think about thinking - though they may not need words to do so.

We humans, being a highly verbal species - talk, talk, talk (and sometimes blah blah blah) - are often inclined to think at first that "thinking" or "thought" is something done with words, that words are required for it. A growing number of experts are accumulating evidence to the contrary.

Video Relates Scientific Paradigm Shift and a Sarcastic Octopus

Linden cites the work of anthropologist Harvey B. Sarles, recently retired from the University of Minnesota, whose influential work includes a paper in 1969 entitled "The Study of Language and Communication Across Species."

Professor Sarles demonstrated that, as Linden puts it, "the non-verbal … is often the loudest, most obvious part of communication."

Sarles realized that he could, for example, write an in-depth anthropological study of the Mayans among whom he was living in Mexico - describing their social structures, relationships, values - without necessarily speaking their language, since, like all humans (and other animals), they convey so much meaning by action and gesture.

Sarles contributed to what Linden describes as "a paradigm shift" that is now emerging in the study of animal intelligence.

All sorts of mental modes and attitudes that we human associate with words are, as Linden reports, apparently present in animals who do not seem to be using words at all.

Even sarcasm, or something very much like it, in an picky octopus:

Let's end with a song - one that makes a point about words.

Surely, we humans feel, there must be something unique, or at least superior, about how humans use words.

But if so, how can we define that difference?

Here's a video that advances this exploration of words in a magically paradoxical way.

Paradoxical Magic From Alison Krauss and Baby Moose at Play

It shows some baby moose and their mom in a backyard.

The link to this video was also sent by my sister, the aforementioned "animal person," along with this verbal thought from her that imagines the moose speaking English words: "Can't you just hear the conversation that took place deep in the forest, say, 20 minutes before this: 'George, I'm taking the kids to the park - the one with the sprinkler.' "

But this video came with a bonus. Someone decided when posting it to set it to music - Alison Krauss singing, "You say it best when you don't say nothing at all."

Everyone knows intuitively that words can sometimes get in the way of the best communications.

And most everyone learns early in life that just because you say something verbally, with words - or even just think it verbally - that's no guarantee of its truth nor of its truthfulness.

But let Alison tell it… or rather, sing it:

We don't know who decided to put it to the music of this song, but the fact that they did so speaks volumes (so to speak) about the power of the display of … whatever it is that the three moose communicated to that person.

All sorts of animals, big and small - birds, amphibians, mammals in the sea and on land - are known to have evolved the use of song to convey emotion and information.

Experts even debate how they might distinguish between "song" and non-musical "speech" or signaling in various animals.

In some instances, say scientists, animal "song" seems designed to give comfort, for whatever reason, to offspring or mates or other fellow members of their species.

Such comfort, of course, may seem similar to something like the pleasurable calming effect we humans sometimes experience from the best art…

- Including what happens when a human listens to Alison Krauss singing that song, "You say it best… when you say nothing at all."

The words in this song paradoxically use words, embodied in the privileged emotions of song, to explore the defeat of words.

As we know from reading the lyrics of songs we like, these words would do little for us by themselves if just printed on a piece of paper and without a great artist singing them.

How much more meaning is conveyed in the way Alison Krauss subtly varies the phrasing of the normally accented syllables of the words against the rhythm of the music.

- The way she sometimes shifts notes in the middle of a single syllable in a way that amplifies the strong and fragile meanings of the word.

- The way she strays ever so slightly now and then from the beat.

- And the particular softness - for which there are no words, and probably never will be - that she manages to put into her voice.

This is the third in a series on animal intelligence - following Nature's Edge Notebook #11 "Hunting With a Most Endangered Hunter - Dateline Botswana" at http://abcn.ws/rI6Obx … and NEN # 12 "Dogs Use Subway, Cat Takes Bus…" at http://abcn.ws/zXPpDd


An additional video segment with Eugene Linden discussing metacognition, how animals appear to think about thinking, and how they mess with each other's minds - all making it a livelier world for us humans.