Frontiers of Science: Birds of a Feather “Talk” Together


All animals have some kind of a language. Some talk more than others; some only speak in sign-language. … But the Doctor, he understands them all—birds as well as animals. We keep it a secret though, him and me, because folks only laugh at you when you speak of it.

Birds of a Feather “Talk” Together

So confided Matthew Mugg, the Cat’s-meat-Man, to Tommy Stubbins when describing the amazing relationship that existed between the famous Doctor Dolittle and his numerous animal friends. But as history has demonstrated the validity of so many seemingly ridiculous ideas, people aren’t laughing anymore.

Koko is an 8-year-old, 140-pound gorilla that lives on the campus of Stanford University in California. She’s not a Ph.D. candidate in the Language Arts Department, but she is a respectable student of beginning English. Scientists there have already learned to communicate with her by means of hand signals, and she has now mastered almost 400 symbolic gestures. She also “talks” to them by means of a keyboard computer that vocalizes a word after she has punched the symbol for it. Her IQ, as measured by the same tests given to you and me, is between 85 and 95. And if that were not enough to convince scientists of her intelligence, they were quickly converted when they realized that she was slyly not giving correct answers until she was given a snack for a reward!

Sherman and Austin are two of many chimpanzees living at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Georgia. They, too, have learned to communicate with humans by means of sign language. Taking it one step further, however, they have now begun to converse with each other by this means. Located in separate rooms with a small opening between them, Sherman will use his computer keyboard to ask Austin for a certain food. Austin will read his request and then proceed to fill his order, choosing from among as many as fifteen different delicacies, such as orange drink, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and candies. These chimpanzees are now at the point where they are asking each other for specific tools to help them reach food in hard-to-get-at places.

In studies such as these, scientists are learning that many animals are very intelligent creatures and that they are capable of two-way communication with us. They have also found that they exhibit many characteristics that we have long believed to be strictly human. For instance, Koko, a very intelligent gorilla, will sometimes lie and accept bribes in her weaker moments; but in other instances she will act more noble and even create simple poetry—“flower pink, fruit stink.” Gorillas and chimpanzees also exhibit strong emotions. Jane Goodall, the famous naturalist, has discovered that chimps sometimes think destructive thoughts and even carry them out; while at the other extreme, Washoe—the original “talking chimp”—cried out in anguish, “My baby! My baby!” when her second infant died at the age of three months after a puzzling ailment.

Across the whole spectrum of the animal kingdom, language and intelligence are being studied by scientists as never before. From the complicated dances of tiny honeybees that tell their coworkers where to go to find nectar, to the songs of the great humpback whale—songs that may be discerned by other whales at distances of hundreds and even thousands of miles—our coinhabitants of the earth are beginning to be understood by us in a very new way.

Yes, the spirit of Doctor Dolittle is alive and well, as evidenced by a whole army of naturalists who are taking up his trade. Fortunately for them, science has progressed from the famous doctor’s day. Whereas Dr. Dolittle often caught severe colds from holding his head underwater while deciphering the language of shellfish, sophisticated instruments have now replaced his attentive ear. I suspect that even he would marvel at the progress that is being made today. Or maybe he’d just take it for granted.

[illustration] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney

[photo] Sherman and Austin, two intelligent chimpanzees, are readied for a session of computer communication. (Photo courtesy of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center of Emory University.)