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Dogs Communicate, So Do Prairie Dogs – So?

prairie dog

Prairie dogs communicate information about threats to each other through a range of differently pitched and constructed chirps and barks. Now that’s the factual information that a New York Times article wishes to share (“Can Prairie Dogs Talk?”). But what do you think they do with it? What larger case is it recruited to serve?

Of course, they turn it into an argument against the exceptional place of human beings in nature:

The majority of linguists and animal-communication experts maintain that language is restricted to a single species: ourselves. Perhaps because it is so ostensibly entwined with thought, with consciousness and our sense of self, language is the last bastion encircling human exceptionalism. To concede that we share language with other species is to finally and fully admit that we are different from other animals only in degrees not in kind. In many people’s minds, language is the “cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff,” as Tom Wolfe argues in his book “The Kingdom of Speech,” published last year.

[Researcher Con] Slobodchikoff thinks that dividing line is an illusion. To him, the idea that a human might have a two-way conversation with another species, even a humble prairie dog, is not a pretense; it’s an inevitability. And the notion that animals of all kinds routinely engage in sophisticated discourse with one another — that the world’s ecosystems reverberate with elaborate animal idioms just waiting to be translated — is not Doctor Dolittle-inspired nonsense; it is fact. [Emphasis added.]

It’s all in the spin, isn’t it? Chirping chipmunks – sorry, prairie dogs – knock down the “the last bastion encircling human exceptionalism,” proving “we are different from other animals only in degrees not in kind.” Yet you can’t help noticing that prairie dogs are not studying humans’ surprising ability to communicate complex information about threats or anything else, or writing articles for journals or newspapers about their research.

Now, compare that with an article in the London Telegraph that describes something unsurprising: dogs too communicate in ways that people can readily interpret (“Dogs can talk to humans, study suggests”). We can tell if their growls or barks are playful or threatening. Scientists proved this, as if it needed proving.

Fine. But observe, with some gratitude, the absence of ideological spin:

The scientists concluded: “Our results … indicate that dogs communicate honestly their size and inner state in serious contest situations, where confrontation would be costly, such as during guarding of their food from another dog.

“At the same time, in contexts with assumedly more uncertain inner states, such as in play or when threatened by a stranger, they may manipulate certain key parameters in their growls for an exaggerated aggressive and playful expression.

“According to our results, adult humans seem to understand and respond accordingly to this acoustic information during cross-species interactions with dogs.”

The conclusion is simple and uncontroversial. Anyone who regularly interacts with dogs knew it already. I point it out only because the scientists don’t go on to make the absurd inference that no “sheerly dividing line” separates humans from dogs. Only a willful insistence on undercutting human exceptionalism would dictate that conclusion.

Photo: A prairie dog, by Nilfanion (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.