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From Chris Wayan's journal, 1997/7/31

I just saw a TV show with substance, despite the title, STRANGE UNIVERSE. It was on animal thought and language. Rather than theorizing, it just showed examples and let you draw your own conclusions.

Two stage magicians both use tigers centrally in their acts. One guy seems competent enough, but the other's rapport is just magical. The difference is instantly visible--the intuitive guy moves as my deep instincts say to. He responds to the tigers' emotions by expressing his own, rather than by following trainer's rules. He says as much. "When knocked down, I bit the tiger on the nose without thinking. We ended the quarrel amicably--we were even." He's never been injured. The other, who works by rules, has had major stitches...

Washoe the chimp, decades after the famous sign-language experiments, is stuck in a medical lab somewhere. Still signing, mostly begging, even though there's no reward: humans mostly respond "not now, busy." But signing to other chimps too. And herself, in thought. Idly playing with a black plastic toy cow she signs "Black black cow, stupid cow..."

A dog predicts an epileptic girl's seizures well before she can feel them coming. It's changed her life; much safer, more independent now. Not unique, either; one doctor is training more dogs to spot the change, even though no one knows quite how they do it.

A British scientist set up synchronized cameras on a dog and owner who are miles apart; yet the dog responds to the owner's actions! When she starts out for home, at a time randomly determined, unknown to all till that moment, within seconds the dog at home gets up and moves to wait at the door. Filmed a huge number of such reactions now.

Another scientist, interviewed about that experiment, dismisses the very premise as absurd. The data must all be either coincidence, or fraud. And then, quite without prompting, the skeptic goes on to mock even the concept of animal languages as trivial and meaningless! Obviously one could find scientists skeptical of telepathy who don't deny the evidence of animal language abilities, but the way this character links them is painfully familiar: we've all heard these people. Not a cheap shot by the producers in linking the two: they're revealing a real and widespread bias. Human supremacism!

A talking parrot. They choose to show us his mastery of human conceptual categories--and the bird gives correct one word answers to human questions about color, number, shape, and material. But when the parrot wants to quit and go have dinner, suddenly he volunteers whole sentences and expresses feelings as well as needs. But that isn't seen as important--it's accurate physical categorizing that counts!

How American! Remember that recent study of differences between Japanese and American babies? American moms teach kids more vocabulary sooner, differentiating objects (truck, car, bus); Japanese ones teach social relations sooner--"I give you one, now you give me one." And American newspapers reported the difference as if the Japanese kids were retarded, rather than learning more abstract skills! Shouldn't English speakers be worrying that ANOTHER generation of Americans are gonna be selfish, insensitive social retards who know more about trucks than fairness? The study was less revealing than the way the papers missed the point.

And I think English-speaking scientists suffer from an even worse cultural blindspot about animal language and cognition styles.

LISTS AND LINKS: animal rights and species uplift issues - animal people - hunches and urges - languages - mastery - ESP as a topic - random rants - social issues - Washoe

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