Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature

By Douglas Keith Candland | Go to book overview

12
Language and Meaning: Sarah 12 and Lana, Sherman and Austin, Kanzi and Ai

THAT ANIMALS, including human beings, can be taught to make gestures is not astonishing. Hans's taps, Van's fetches, Peter the chimp's writing--all these are examples of the animal's ability to invent or modify motor actions. The motor actions, the gesticulations, and the signs do not necessarily imply meaning or the transfer of information. Let us speak to a horse through a telephone (as did Krall), the receiver of which is placed to the horse's ear. Let us say to the horse "What is seven plus three?" Or, if we wish, "Was ist seben und zwei?" or "¿Cuanto es siete y tres?"

The horse taps the hoof ten times.

What meaning has been transferred to the horse (or, alternatively, to the child, the dog, the chimpanzee)? Not necessarily any, but to understand why this is so we return to the distinction made in Chapter 3 between sensation and perception. What the horse senses, as far as we know, is a set of electrical impulses transferred to the acoustic center of the brain. These impulses arise from the discharge of neurochemicals and therefore electrical exchanges in the neuron and axon. What the brain hears is not "What is seven plus three?" but an electronic code something like

Presumably, the code will be a little different if the question is asked in German or Spanish, merely because the frequencies and intensities of the neurons discharged by the sound will be somewhat different. The principle remains, however, that what is sensed is the unit and patterns presented by the electronic code. We presume that it is the pattern of the code that comes to be attached to the motor response. The horse now taps ten times because the particular code is associated with that precise motor response. The horse, like the human being, we presume, has a brain that translated the sensation into a perception. We do not know what that perception is like to the horse (it is to this question that phenomenology addresses itself), but to ourselves we "hear" the code as a percep

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