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Implications of non-human species possessing language

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Sort of a lighter topic, but it's something I find interesting. If Dolphins are capable of communicating abstract concepts through complex language, would that mean they have the capacity for rational thought? Would they be deserving of protections if this was discovered to be the case? Purely hypothetical as how complex their methods of communication are is not yet known, but I am interested in hearing some answers. I think this would apply to hypothetical alien life as well.

Here's a short article on the subject:


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Professionally speaking, (*sigh*). This animal language nonsense apparently will never go away.

The first relevant division in cognition that has to be made is between “symbol” and “concept”. Very simple organisms with nervous systems can at least respond to physical stimuli. We don’t know anything significant about bug-cognition, but we do know that honeybees have the ability to communicate information about good (via an iconic dance, where the signal is directly related to the message (direction and distance). When we get to birds and mammals, people increase their metaphorical talk about “language” (though they say the same thing about bees and in fact in extremely metaphorical cases, about inanimate objects). There is a fair amount of evidence that some birds and mammals have something along the lines of “self-awareness”, thus they utter the message “Me. Me. Me”. There is a lot of variation in the form of the message, so that the signal may be stored and repeated for a short while (i.e. “today” or “this season”), or maybe longer terms. This is simple a label a name.

Humans have a unique ability, which is to for concepts, which is (first) the mental grouping together of existents defined on some perceptible basis and (second) a label attached to that grouping. Thus we have in English the words “dog”, “cat”, “rat”, “mammal”, and “animal”, each of which refers to a different thing. We use these discrete labels to communicate to others. Concepts can be formed by grouping other concepts together, to form a new concept (mammal, animal, pet, etc). The various labels can be combined into sentences which communicate propositions. Sequences of propositions can be organized into “reasoning”, as exemplified by Atlas Shrugged and ITOE.

The ability to self-identify is not the same as having a rational faculty. Even the ability to learn to group immediately-evident classes of existents under a communicable label is not the same as having a rational faculty, and there is no evidence that dolphins or apes have even that rudimentary capacity. The “signal complexity” claim is a red herring. What is lacking is evidence for discrete generalizability and combinability. Words of human language are made of cognitively-discrete combinable sound units, like “k”, “s”, “i”, “m” and so on, but the physical reality is continuous modulation of an acoustic waveform. (That cognitive fact is why we can write with distinct letters to represent the infinitude of physical symbols). The whale/dolphin language-advocates have yet to establish that the emited waveforms of those animals have an analogous cognitive status: construction of complex structures built on concatenation of cognitively discrete units which are realised as physical continua. We have known for a century that bee dance superficially looks complex because there are very many possible signals, but they don’t reduce to complex and structured combinations of atomic units.

Us linguists object to misusing the word “language” to refer to things that aren’t language, like “the language of music”, or talking of DNA as being a kind of “language”. You can call the laws of physics the “language of reality”, but it ain’t a language. Abstraction and recursive structure build on lower-level abstractions is the essential feature of human language, and no animals on Earth have it, other than the rational animal.

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Separately, let me address the rational thought / rights question. “Rights” derive from man’s nature: our proper means of survival is reason, not e.g. superior force as in the case of lions. More specifically, man’s actions are chosen, not automatic / metaphysically given, and man uses reason to devise a moral code guiding his choices. “Rights” are a part of that moral code specifically devised for existence in a society, that is, when we live together through voluntary trade (the natural outgrowth of living cooperatively in a society).

An alien species might well have aspects of the faculty of reason yet be compelled to survive by superior force, hence the fictitious Kzinti. In the Man-Kzin Wars novels the cats seem to be in an evolutionary middle stage, that they have language and space ships but cannot freely resist the compulsion to kill and eat. The human concept of rights and surrender of the use of force for survival to government monopoly is simply not applicable to a Kzin. The connection between language, the faculty of reason, and the concept of rights as applied to humans does not come from the ability to group individuals together under concepts, or to form communicative propositions, and it does not come from the fact that we can perform logical computations like “If A then B; A is true; Then it follows that B is true”. Rather, it follows from the fact that we can freely chose our actions, and that we can survive using our wits rather than our claws.


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