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Medical Underestimation of animal intelligence?

  1. Jan 29, 2006 #1
    I'm not really sure that this fits under Biology, but oh well... I was wondering how animals, such as dogs, learn to speak their own language.

    One would think there would be two possible explanations of how they do this: one being that they are born with an innate understanding of the language, or the other being that the parents of the animal (dog in this case) teach them how to speak. Either choice would carry profound implications about the intelligence levels of animals.

    If the second possibility is true, then the language of animals is much more complex then previously thought! A language as complex as this would be could only be used by beings of significant intelligence.
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  3. Jan 30, 2006 #2


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    What kind of language do you think non-human animals use? For example, does releasing pheromones count as "speaking a language"?

    Different means of communication function and might be acquired in different ways. Are you interested in communication via chemicals, body language, speech, etc.?
  4. Jan 30, 2006 #3


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    Okay, here are the highlights from some quick reading and searching.

    Some animal communication systems are entirely innate (honeybee dances, bird calls) while others are at least partially acquired (bird songs (I think whale songs are too but not sure), and other animals have brain structures devoted to communication. Different means of animal communication (e.g. scent, light, electricity, color, posture), Hockett's design-features, differences between human language and animal communication, and info about language abilities of other animals are summed up nicely here (several links as well):

    You might also want to check out this similar page:

    the answers to these questions:
    Edit: should have known it wouldn't work. Just search http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/search-ask-ling.html [Broken] for animal communication.

    and these reviews (and the books if you're interested, of course):
    http://cf.linguistlist.org/cfdocs/new-website/LL-WorkingDirs/pubs/reviews/get-review.cfm?SubID=49433&RequestTimeout=500 [Broken]
    http://cf.linguistlist.org/cfdocs/new-website/LL-WorkingDirs/pubs/reviews/get-review.cfm?SubID=16482&RequestTimeout=500 [Broken]

    BTW, I don't really follow your argument.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  5. Jan 30, 2006 #4

    Ivan Seeking

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  6. Jan 30, 2006 #5
    Thanks for the interesting links! Honestrosewater, my argument I suppose is that animals such as prairie dogs (see the link from Ivan Seeking) have a complex language that can either be learned in the two ways above (and by language I meant a method of communication by producing different sounds). If the prairie dogs aren't born with an understanding of their language, then they must be taught it. If they were taught it, then their language must be complex in the way that it contains a means of teaching others the meaning of certain utterances.
  7. Jan 31, 2006 #6


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    Well, that's either necessarily true or I still don't follow, depending on what you mean by 'complex'. What do you mean by complex? Did you check out Hockett's design-features? It's certainly not the only option, but it's a place to start. Here's another list with brief descriptions:
    Which of those do you think affect the 'complexity' of a language? I think I might go with Reflexiveness, Productivity, Duality, and Displacement as having the greatest influence on complexity. But I don't see what Cultural Transmission (CT) has to do with the structure, other than it possibly being necessary for certain structures -- but that's the complexity determining the type of transmission, not the type of transmission determining the complexity.

    Even borrowing the broad definition
    animals can learn new behaviors by observing and imitating each other, including stealing ideas from each other (and who benefits from stealing?), without any communication going on; e.g. apes fishing for termites with sticks, using rocks to break open fruits or whatnot. In fact, I'd bet that human children can learn a lot about a language without ever sending or being sent a message, by just listening to others speak -- and learn even more if you inlcude listening to themselves speak. Children already learn with little instruction.

    Perhaps you're thinking that CT implies Reflexiveness? I think that's an interesting idea, though if I had to lean one way now, I'd lean towards it being false.

    From the article, it sounds like the prairie dogs have words that might have some internal structure. But really look at what it says.
    I think it would be a bigger leap to conclude from that that prairie dogs must possess significant intelligence.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
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