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Review of  Doctor Dolittle's Delusion

Reviewer: Anne Reboul
Book Title: Doctor Dolittle's Delusion
Book Author: Stephen R. Anderson
Publisher: Yale University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 16.706

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Date: Tue, 8 Mar 2005 09:41:53 +0100
From: Anne Reboul
Subject: Doctor Dolittle's Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human

AUTHOR: Anderson, Stephen R.
TITLE: Doctor Dolittle's Delusion
SUBTITLE: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language
PUBLISHER: Yale University Press
YEAR: 2004

Anne Reboul, Research Team "Linguistics, Pragmatics and Cognition",
Institute for Cognitive Sciences, CNRS, France

The present book presents both a very accessible, readable, extremely well-
informed and wide ranging (from bees to humans) introduction to animal
communication as well as a very scholarly discussion of what makes human
language different from any of the other existing communication systems in
the animal world. At the same time, it includes a careful and honest
discussion of what could be seen as hybrids between animal systems of
communication and the human language, i.e., the experiments aiming at
developing something like human language in nonhuman animals, from Alex
the parrot to Koko the gorilla, passing through the chimpanzees Washoe and
her conspecifics and Kanzi, the bonobo who still represents the most
successful of such experiments in apes.

This is a book well-worth reading: for the uninformed reader, it's a
wealth of information on animal communication relying on the latest
literature and covering all aspects of communication, from acoustics to
contents of signals, and including a very clear discussion of human
language (from the vantage point of generative grammar). For the informed
reader, the book is still well-worth reading for the discussions, which
are both well-argued and very fair. There is no hasty dismissal of claims
relative to the diverse abilities of such and such a species but a careful
exposition of the similarities and dissimilarities between animal and
human communication. As a sample example, Anderson notes that all the apes
who were taught ASL did not develop the features of ASL that make it a
language in the human sense, i.e., morphological and syntactic features:
he points out however that they were taught whatever ASL they learnt by
people for whom ASL was a more or less badly learnt foreign language
rather than their mother tongue and who did not themselves exemplify those
crucial morphosyntactic features. This does not mean that the apes could
learn ASL in the strict sense (as spoken by deaf people), but it does
show, as Anderson clearly says, that the design of the experiments was
certainly not optimal if the goal was, as advertised, to show that apes
could master human language.

I'll begin by a short synopsis before returning to what I consider as the
most important points of the book.

The book is organized in eleven chapters preceded by a preface. The first
chapter, "Animals, Language, and Linguistics" , introduces linguistics as
the scientific field that can say what is or not a language, reviews
popular claims about animal communication, either natural or artificially
induced (talking apes) and outlines the contents of the rest of the book.

The second chapter, "Language and communication", contrasts language and
communication as well as communication as usually understood, on the basis
of linguistic communication (clearly intentional), and what takes place in
animal communication (where intentionality is at best debatable). It then
turns to the characteristics of language as enumerated by Hockett (1960),
noting that though some are common between language and animal
communication, others are not.

Chapter 3, "On studying cognition", opens with a discussion of the
distinction between apparent (termite mounds) and real complexity of
structure (language) and of the dangers of over- as well underestimating
cognitive abilities, both human and nonhuman. It then turns to
communication as a double way into animal mind: through the study of
natural animal communication (what is communicated among conspecifics and
non-conspecifics); through direct communication with animals who have been
taught a means of communicating with humans. Additionally, studying the
difference between animal and human communication also provides valuable
insights about human cognition and its (linguistic) specificities.
Anderson adds a few words of caution relative to overestimation of animal
capacities, advocating Morgan's law (never attribute to a higher faculty
what can be explained through the exercise of a lower faculty), before
turning to natural language, its modular nature as evidenced through
double dissociation and its complexity.

Chapter 4, "The dance "Language" of honeybees", tells the story of the
well-known honeybee dance, from its first description by Karl von Frisch
to the most recent experiments. After a careful description, Anderson
points out that though communication is undeniably taking place, the
honeybee dance is clearly not intentionally communicative, is entirely
innate and, though unbounded in the sense that it can transmit an infinite
number of messages, quite restricted as to what is being communicated,
i.e., the location of food. Additionally, though the dance is sequential,
it is not compositional in the way human languages are. Finally, the dance
is iconic, rather than arbitrary. Anderson then turns to the question of
whether the dance involves displacement. Though it might seem so, he
concludes that "the parameter of the dance that indicates distance to the
food does not represent a genuinely external property, but reflects the
bee's subjective experience in flight" (88).

Chapter 5 is devoted to "Sound in frog and man". Male frogs produce mating
calls, which allows females to choose their partners on the basis of the
depth of their voices, indicative of their size, based on the simple
principle that "Bigger is better". Anderson then turns to a detailed and
very clear exposition of the acoustics of frog calls, then turning to the
properties of the vocal tract in humans, as well as to their auditory
system, noting that speech is perceived in a different way from other
auditory stimuli. He introduces the motor theory of speech perception: "we
are competent hearers (...) because we are also talkers" (115), before
turning to phonology, concluding the chapter with an analogy between
songbirds and humans. "The capacity to acquire the phonology of a language
is just as deeply rooted in our own biology" (127) as the capacity of
songbirds to acquire their songs is rooted in their biology.

Rather naturally, the next chapter turns to "Birds and babies learning to
speak". Some species of songbirds learn their songs in a manner highly
reminiscent of the way children acquire language, i.e., "song develops in
a way that requires interaction with early experience (rather than being
entirely innate)" (129). In contrast to bird calls, songs are an
expression of territoriality, being both warnings to other males and
attractive to females. Song learning and production is quite different
from call learning and production. Calls are always innate and use
different brain structures. Song by contrast is not entirely innate, but
its learning, though it involves experience, is strongly biologically
constrained. Some lateralization is implied in song and "the motor control
areas involved in song production are also involved in song perception"
(143). Song learning exhibits a critical or sensitive period, just as
language acquisition. Finally, songs may be said to have phonology, but
not syntax. Anderson then describes the chronology of language
acquisition, from cooing to syntax and concludes that "nestlings and
babies both grow up in a specific way, determined in essence by the fact
that they are birds and humans, respectively" (165).

Chapter 7, "What primates have to say for themselves", turns to natural
communication in primates. Anderson begins with the remark that though
monkeys use mainly vocalizations and relatively little gestures, exactly
the reverse is true of apes. Calls in monkeys and prosimians (e.g.,
lemurs) are not restricted to alarm calls, though the alarm calls of some
species such as vervets have been extensively studied. The three distinct
calls of vervets seem to be referential in as much as they don't express
degrees of danger or of alarm, but refer to different types of predators.
What is more, vervets also use the alarm calls of non-conspecifics (i.e.,
the superb starling) and show themselves sensitive to the semantic
differences between their and other species' calls. Other monkeys, such as
Campbell's monkeys seem to evidence a combination of two elements, the
first apparently modifying the alarm call to mitigate it. Anderson then
turns to a comparison between call production and interpretation in human
and nonhuman primates, insisting on the specificity of the upper vocal
tract in humans. Regarding perception, nonhuman primates show evidence of
lateralization for the perception of conspecific vocalizations. Regarding
learning, the production of monkey vocalization seem innate: the calls are
produced from birth on, though some fine tuning takes place as to when
exactly the different calls must be produced. Finally, alarm call
production is sensitive to audience, which is an additional reason not to
consider it as an expression of an internal state. Turning to apes,
chimpanzees do not seem to have alarm calls differentiated in terms of
predators, though this can be explained through the differences in
selective pressure on chimpanzees and monkeys. Pant-hoots identify
individuals though they can hardly be regarded as referential. Chimpanzees
also communicate through gestures, which "seemingly are flexible in
formation and use" (195). Thus "that nonhuman primates can be trained to
use manual gestures in a meaningful way is to some extent a natural
extension of normal behavior" (196).

Chapter 8 returns to language, being devoted to "Syntax". As Anderson
notes, "we find the same basic structural properties in every human
language" (199). Those properties are those that make languages discrete
combinatorial systems. These systematic properties can be evidenced by pro-
forms substitution, displacement and agreement relations, the discussion
of which leads Anderson to the autonomy of syntax.

Chapter 9 argues that "Language is not just speech". It is devoted to a
discussion of ASL, showing that ASL, though using gestures rather than
phonemes, is no less a language than English, French or any sound using
language. Though signs may be originally based on iconicity, they very
quickly reduce iconicity, thus exemplifying the arbitrariness typical of
human languages. Again, though ASL does not use sounds, one can find in it
the equivalents of phonemes, morphemes, tense and aspect markers, as well
as the same syntactic properties evidenced by spoken languages.

Chapter 10, "Language instruction in the laboratory", leaves the field of
natural communication to describe the experiments which from the late 60s
have attempted to teach animals, mostly apes, human languages, mainly ASL.
Given that signed languages are languages, if an ape could be shown to
have mastered it (including its fundamental linguistic properties), it
would show that "human language is within the cognitive capacities of an
animal" (266). Though most such experiments used ASL, some used keyboards
or tokens. As Anderson notes, the star of the show is undoubtedly the
bonobo Kanzi though it is still doubtful whether he "has truly acquired
the structural core of a human language" (268). Anderson reviews the
results of these experiments, beginning with those based on ASL. He notes
that these experiments were seriously flawed given that ASL was not a
first language for any of the experimenters, which means that they learnt
it as a foreign language as adults and had no true mastery of its
fundamental linguistic properties. Thus, they could not in any way
transmit those properties to the apes who were never exposed to
linguistically correct utterances. Another doubtful area concerns the type
of combinations that the animals produced: none of them seem to approach
anything like syntax, neither do these utterances manifest displacement,
other than in relation to food. The most interesting case, however, is
Kanzi, though his abilities should be considered in interpretation rather
than in production (Kanzi communicates with keyed lexigrams). The
comparison made between the understanding by Kanzi and a 18 months old
child of English is indeed impressive in terms of cognitive abilities,
showing that Kanzi seems to operate on a fairly sophisticated word-chain
model, though his performance was poor for sentences involving grammatical
words (e.g., prepositions and conjunctions). However, it does not show
that Kanzi has mastered anything like the syntax of natural language.
Regarding mastery of the lexicon, though non-iconicity is not in doubt,
displacement and non-instrumentality may not be present. Anderson then
turns to the remarkable Alex, an African grey parrot to whom Irene
Pepperberg has taught a communicative system based on natural language
(English). Again his receptive abilities are more developed than his
productive abilities, though he, like Kanzi, seems to operate on a word
chain system. His words are non-iconic, though displacement and non-
instrumentality seem doubtful. The most remarkable thing about Alex's
communicative abilities is that they have been used to show that he has
built higher-level categories such as shape, color and number. This was
the goal of Pepperberg, who wasn't trying to show that Alex could learn
English, but rather to make "interspecies communication" possible.

In the final and 11th chapter, "Language, biology and evolution", Anderson
insists on an argument proposed by Chomsky: "animals could not have the
cognitive capacity to learn a language (...) in that they never display
this capacity in nature" (307). Given that language is evolutionarily
advantageous, the idea that animals are capable of language but do not use
language is nonsensical. Thus, "language as we know it is a uniquely human
capacity, determined by our biological nature" (307). Anderson then turns
to the fashionable but disputed problem of the origins of language, noting
that there are two answers, depending on whether one says that "the
language ability arose during the course of evolution [as opposed to]
through evolutionary mechanisms" (308). Chomsky is a representative of the
first position, while Pinker, Jackendoff and others are representatives of
the second, emphasizing communication as a selective pressure. Anderson
then turns to speech, noting that though the descent of the larynx has
been exaggerated since, as shown by Fitch, quite a few species descend
their larynx when they vocalize, still the permanently low position of the
human larynx may be the result of the evolution of language rather than
the reverse. Anderson then rehearses the scenario advocated by Bickerton
and adopted with modifications by Jackendoff, in terms of a protolanguage
from which universal language eventually developed. Finally, Anderson
argues that what makes language a unique and powerful tool is not only the
possibility for symbolic reference, but syntax and since syntax is not
evidenced in any other species, "it appears that the syntactic principles
of Universal Grammar are a part of specifically human biology" (324).


The main interest on the book is not, I think, that Anderson's views on
animal communication are original (indeed, his aim is a synthesis) or that
his ideas about language are original (they can be found, mutatis
mutandis, in quite a lot of linguistic books). Rather the uniqueness of
Anderson's attempt resides in the fact that he clearly succeeds in
illuminating language through his study of animal communication and animal
communication through his study of language. If anything, his book
endeavors and succeeds to show that each communicative system in the
animal (including humans) world is unique and uniquely adapted to the
needs of the species that has it. This is certainly also true of human
language, though whether the needs it satisfies are communicative is
debatable. It might be that language indeed has a more cognitive than
communicative function, but this is another question.

Thus, reading Anderson's book is a highly satisfying experience. Each
chapter (and some subsections) opens with a quotation taken from the
Doctor Dolittle stories and the book as a whole is very readable. For a
user-friendly introduction to animal communication and the uniqueness of
the human language, one can hardly do better than read Anderson.


Hockett, Charles F. (1960) Logical considerations in the study of animal
communication. In: Lanyon, W. E. & Tavolga, W. N., Animal sounds and
animal communication, Washington D.C., American Institute of Biological
Sciences, pp. 392-430.


Anne Reboul is a First Class Research Fellow at the French Center for
Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics
(EHESS, Paris) and a Ph.D. in philosophy (University of Geneva,
Switzerland). She has written some books, among which an Encyclopaedic
Dictionary of Pragmatics and quite a few papers in French and English, on
pragmatics and/or philosophical subjects.

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