Chasing Doctor Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals

Con Slobodchikoff, Author, Slobodchikoff, Author
Con Slobodchikoff. St. Martin’s, $25.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-312-61179-8
Reviewed on: 08/06/2012
Release date: 11/27/2012
Open Ebook - 320 pages - 978-1-250-01205-0
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A biologist and director of the Animal Language Institute, Slobodchikoff (Prairie Dogs) reframes his own popular work on animal communication alongside that of other animal behavior researchers in an attempt to show that animal language differs only in evolutionary degree, not in essence, from human language. Since our conceptual biases about animals’ inability to make choices or have intentions may cause us to ignore evidence of the true complexity of animal language, he sought evidence of the factors that some human language experts claim are missing from animal communication and that make it not true language as we understand it. Slobodchikoff posits that humans and animals share a biologically based discourse system, parallel in development to the skeletal, endocrine, or sensory systems, and perhaps mediated by genes like FoxP2, found in humans and a number of other vertebrates. He then re-evaluates some classic studies in animal communication within these contexts: how prairie dogs’ ability to communicate varied characteristics about predators or lizards’ postural displays are evidence of grammar; bee dancing as arbitrary coding; and chickadees’ lack of response to “nonsensical” combinations of birdsong syllables as evidence of both syntax and high information content. Slobodchikoff’s arguments and conversational style may charm intelligent lay readers, but linguists and biologists are likely to find his conclusions a bit speculative. Agent: Laura Wood, Fine Print Literary Management. (Nov.)
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