Tuesday, December 22, 2009


New York Times article on the sophistication of plant mechanisms:


Should we still eat plants??" The article half-jokingly questions.

Yes, yes you should.

We can't photosynthesize, people. But I also do not believe there is anything morally wrong with the idea of eating animals, so some may disagree.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


This horrifying picture is of a hookworm. A microscopic parasite that lives off of a host by attaching to the intestine. Pretty scary. I have recently learned that this little guy might actually have a lot to offer humans. Since the beginning of the hookworm and human relationship they have evolved together quite literally. Not necessarily peas in a pod but there have been benefits to each.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Will My Cats Ever Really Listen to Me?

My two cats, Salix and Sorrel, have a unique technique of getting onto my lap while I work at my computer (work being a debatable term). It involves a complex series of events that ends with their claws tearing away small ribbons of my upper thigh as they scale their way up my swivel chair. This dance usually starts with them placing their front two paws on my leg staring at me with their head slightly cocked to one side while I begin yelling "No, no, no, no! WAIT!! I'll pick you up!" Needless to say they either do not comprehend my pleads, or more likely, sadistically choose to ignore them.

Every evening I silently convince myself that I will develop a way to communicate with my furry companions to prevent these situations from occurring again. Of course I'm not the first one to think about animal communication. This morning I came across an article in the New York Times about a group of scientists that claim they have deciphered the Campbell's monkey vocabulary. While these scientists and my own motives may have been slightly (ever so slightly) different, our curiosity over one question was identical. Why can't we talk with the animals?

As I begin nursing my bleeding thighs and look into the content eyes of my attacker, I can interpret their purring as nothing less than an expression of their satisfaction. After reading the article I naturally ran over to the one place that holds all the answers to the universe, Wiki. To say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. The debate over whether animals are even capable of communication was an online war I didn't even know was being waged. It seemed strange to me that people could think animals can't communicate. When your dog dances around at the front door when you first come home, is that not a clear communication of their happiness of your safe return?

It very well could be, however the debate really isn't about inter-specie communication, but rather inter-specie language or intra-specie language for that matter. As it turns out the real heart of the debate is over whether or not animals engaged in vocal exchanges are speaking in a language or merely communicating threats or desires. The difference is subtle at first. Certainly one can communicate through language, but what defines communication as a language.

Well, according to the Animal language wiki, the following properties of the human language are what differentiate it from animal communication:
  • Arbitrariness: There is no rational relationship between a sound or sign and its meaning. (There is nothing intrinsically "housy" about the word "house".)
  • Cultural transmission: Language is passed from one language user to the next, consciously or unconsciously.
  • Discreteness: Language is composed of discrete units that are used in combination to create meaning.
  • Displacement: Language can be used to communicate ideas about things that are not in the immediate vicinity either spatially or temporally.
  • Duality: Language works on two levels at once, a surface level and a semantic (meaningful) level.
  • Meta-linguistics: Ability to discuss language itself.
  • Productivity: A finite number of units can be used to create an infinite number of utterances.
A host of experiments have proven that animals are able to meet any number of these requirements, however no animals examined to date (at least that wiki is aware of) have not met all of them. Chimps and apes have been observed "talking" to each other about approaching threats. Bee dances are able to describe elements of spatial displacement. Some apes have even been taught rudimentary forms of sign language. But is a bee dance saying "Hey, there is some great flowers 20 meters away North of here.", or is it merely a communication to the other bees "Flowers 20 meters North.". Is this communication or a language? Anyone present in my high school Spanish classes will inform you that I am not qualified to make that distinction.

The main criticisms of animal language studies is that most of the experiments are bad science. The majority of animal language studies lack any kind of controls to discount bias in the interpreted results. For example, a chimp that signs the word for Bill when a researcher points to Bill may be reported as understanding what the scientist said to it. More likely the chimp is simply able to associate the name Bill with Bill. Animal language scientist have been scolded for over-interpreting their results and projecting understanding and comprehension on their subjects with limited results to reinforce their claims.
Whether you are think animals have the ability to use language or lack it, the subject is undeniably fascinating. I can only hope that a human-cat dictionary is published before I go bankrupt from buying new pairs of jeans.