Magazine article Natural History

Talking Points

Magazine article Natural History

Talking Points

Article excerpt

With two children, two cats, and a dog living in a small apartment, all yammering for our attention, my wife and I don't have any trouble believing that animals can communicate. ''Scratch my neck," is hard to miss when your cat nuzzles his head against your forearm. "I want to go for a walk" is impossible to ignore when your dog puts a cold, wet nose under your hands and lifts repeatedly. Stephen R. Anderson understands all that: he too, confesses to owning a cat. His only complaint, in "A Telling Difference" (page 38) is that too many people want to go way beyond all that, and insist that animals have-or could have-language, with the same infinite capacity for expression as we do.

Of course, he's fighting an uphill battle. My guess is that most people who read newspapers or watch TV (that is, almost all of us), but have no scholarly connection with language, assume that the capacity for-if not the reality of-language in at least some animals is settled science. In fact, the science leans quite the other way. The bugbear for bugs and bears and every other species except you-knowwho seems to be syntax, the structural principles that keep a sentence from being a mere list of words. For some reason, syntax has remained beyond the reach of nonhuman animals, even beyond those clever dogs and apes that, of late, have become icons for those who want to believe, as Anderson puts it, that Doctor Uolittlc was right.

Intercultural communication, or lack thereof, goes to the heart of today's debates about whether the confïicts between Muslimmajority states and the West are an unavoidable "clash of civilizations. …

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