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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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  • 3 months later...

Human vocal communication has two primary steps: basic acoustic IO and pre-processing, and some kind of semantic system (i.e. conceptual content). I’m leaving out functional aspects of communication, for example if you say “Salt?”, that might be an offer of salt, a guess what the answer to some question is, or a request to be given salt. Such pragmatic inferences are outside the realm of language, language is merely being used as a means of achieving an end where it is up the the listener to guess what that end is.

In English, assignment of personal names is conventional (not arbitrary, a well-known point about language that the researchers ignored), and there are millions of conventions. Names are volitionally and deliberatively assigned by parents by a process that may look random, but is usually reasonably functional, which is why there is a big industry of peddling the “meaning” of baby names. The majority of English names are Christian, deriving from Semitic or Greek names in the Bible (often unrecognizable at this point), but there are various names imported from pagan tradition, not to mention transplants like “Darius”, “Vladimir”, “Hassan” and “Ashwin”. Ancestral inheritance is a very important principle in name-assignment. Outside of English, personal names are similarly based on convention, sometimes more rigid (e.g. “Tamba” is the name assigned to the second-born male among the Kono, “Chacha” is the name for first-born males among the Kuria…), and typically with a more transparent meaning (E.g. the Shona name “Chipo” is also the word “gift”). Since the 70’s, American Blacks have also taken to creating (initially) semi-novel names like “Jakwan”, taking syllable building blocks and creating new sequences (etymologies are also invented, but that isn’t essential). Initially these constructions were “more unique”, but now there are millions of LaKeishas. It is possible that in some Indian tribes, adults used to create a unique private name that isn’t pulled from a fixed collection, but still the names conformed to the rules of the language governing sound sequences.

Theoretically, an English-speaking American parent could decide to name their child “Q’orro” with a uvular ejective first consonant and a seriously rolled r, but that name would not stick, because it violates the rules of English (but not all languages). The conceptual faculty is an essential part of names in every language. Names are not arbitrary human-producible sounds, they are combinations of sound-concepts arranged according to the rules of a language. You cannot get away with naming a child “Ca200rl” where “a200” is the vowel “a” sustained for 200 msc, and make that be different from “Ca320rl” (e.g. “Here is my oldest son “Ca200rl” and my youngest one “Ca320rl”). That is because such duration differences are not part of the conceptual classification of sounds, in English. Measurement omission is a crucial aspect of processing human language sounds.

Since we can’t actually say anything about the parameters of acoustic variation in elephant noises, we can only surmise that there is some statistical correlation between recorded outputs and particular elephants (as noise-producers or stimuli). We have absolutely no clue how particular noises come to be associated with particular individuals, and no realistic hope of finding out. If you want to call those elephant sounds “names”, go ahead, but there is little in common between human naming and elephant behavior. But, it is based on sounds as opposed to colors, which is one thing in common.

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Just because a dolphin gives out a whistle in certain social settings that is individualized does not of itself show that the whistle is to that dolphin an announcement. (Perhaps there is additional research making the announcement-interpretation further supported.) There are monkeys who have been shown to involuntarily give off calls upon finding a food supply, and they sometimes cover their mouth with their hands in a futile attempt to not be alerting fellow monkeys.

It's possible I've not encountered other-world intelligent agents or their traces because there aren't any such agents. Or, if there had once been such things, they had collective organized violence within their kind, they invented nuclear bombs, and wiped out their species. I did see the film Mars Attacks. Those aliens did not seem to be constituted as having any valuation of life for its own sake, so I don't think that sort of alien agent with their kind of rationality would in the moment warrant awarding them rights. Yodel 'em.

Edited by Boydstun
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1 hour ago, Boydstun said:

Just because a dolphin gives out a whistle in certain social settings that is individualized does not of itself show that the whistle is to that dolphin an announcement.

This is a recurring problem in the animal-language literature, assigning anthropomorphic purposive interpretations to behavior. With signing chimps, they imputed communicative intent and "choice" when in fact the chimps were randomly repeating signs associated with cookies and bananas, and being rewarded by getting a cookie or a banana. Dogs also learn words like "Sit!" and communicate an intent to eat a treat by sitting when told to.

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