Author Topic: Man vs. Beast  (Read 16663 times)

Offline Daniel

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Man vs. Beast
« on: May 23, 2014, 10:16:42 PM »
It was once said that man was separated from the beasts by using tools... before Jane Goodall showed that was just wrong.

And now it is claimed that humans are superior to animals because of the complexity of our communication system: Language.


...I'm skeptical of that. And I've been wondering about a few things, like whether there really is a sharp distinction between human and animal communication. But I just thought of a more interesting question:

If human language is really superior to animal communication, then why can't we all easily learn to speak cat? Or dog? Or dolphin?

And I mean that as a serious question. If humans have animal communication plus added complexity (recursion or whatever you want to claim), then doesn't that mean we should be able to also still speak cat, dog and dolphin?


If instead it turns out that the communication systems of different species are just different, then the entire assumption that humans have some special Language Faculty or UG or whatever is an odd one-- every animal would then. Sure, for us it might add to the "complexity" in the way we observe daily, but if we can't learn to speak cat, then isn't cat also a pretty complicated language?

I'm puzzled about this one.




Of course one lazy (and irrelevant?) answer is that we don't have the same physical speech organs to produce what animals produce. But I don't think that's an important consideration.

The only other way around this would be to suggest that "speak cat" is an inaccurate description of an action, given that cats don't speak-- but they do seem to make some sounds with certain associations, in a way that we don't/can't. Right?
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Offline jkpate

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #1 on: May 23, 2014, 11:37:05 PM »
If human language is really superior to animal communication, then why can't we all easily learn to speak cat? Or dog? Or dolphin?

And I mean that as a serious question. If humans have animal communication plus added complexity (recursion or whatever you want to claim), then doesn't that mean we should be able to also still speak cat, dog and dolphin?

A system that learns one thing doesn't necessarily learn every simplification of that thing. This is because a more complex hypothesis space is going to be larger, and so learning a simple system with that complex hypothesis space requires two kinds of evidence: 1) evidence that the system is simple, and 2) evidence about the behavior of that system. A learner that does not consider the large hypothesis space needs only the second kind of evidence. Indeed, a complex learner might assume that the system is complex, in which case no amount of the first kind of evidence will be enough.

For a concrete example, we can view context free grammars as a generalization of linear structures by saying that a linear structure is a tree where every local subtree branches to the right:



A learner that assumes a linear structure on data that has only linear structure will discover the linear regularities very quickly. A learner that assumes that local subtrees may branch in either direction, however, will need both evidence for the linear regularities and evidence that there is nothing except rightward branching structure. Moreover, if the learner refuses to consider the possibility that all trees branch to the right, then the learner will never learn the correct linear structure.
« Last Edit: May 23, 2014, 11:39:57 PM by jkpate »
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Offline freknu

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #2 on: May 24, 2014, 12:09:31 AM »
I'm always quite sceptical of things that say humans are "special" or somehow "superior" to other animals. Sure, our intellect seems to be quite astounding compared to most other animals, but that is one tiny aspect of the animal that we are — other animals do other things far better than we do.

I would say that out intellect (and our idea of "humanity") is simply an evolutionary trait equivalent to that of the Galapagos finches' beaks. From our point of view our intellect is the survival trait which has shaped us over the millennia.

To say that humans are superior because we ended up with one trait over another is, well, childish. Oh, and dare I say, circular.

Offline Corybobory

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #3 on: May 24, 2014, 03:25:58 AM »
All species have special things that other species don't do - that is why they have their own niche and adaptive pressures resulted in them speciating in the first place. Humans, like other animals, have unique traits.  I believe one of these things is language, but there are a number of other cognitive skills humans have that are not found in other animals. Language isn't monolithic, and is made up of a huge amount of interacting skills - and these skills can be found in other species to varying degrees sometimes.

But humans are the only ones that intentionally communicate with a learned system of symbols that have been agreed upon by a community. And humans are the only animals that live in this niche, with this type of social structure and life strategies. It's not superior, because 'superior' is a subjective designation and is in this context meaningless, like discussing which communication system is more beautiful.

For my research I'm looking at the relationship between theory of mind and language.  Theory of mind is also a trait that is rare and possibly unique to the human species.  Both of these traits scaffold the development of each other and are required for the other to work properly. There are a number of developments that are required before the development of theory of mind or language - and it's the lack of these, as they haven't been evolutionarily adaptive and have not developed in other species, that other species can't be taught to speak, and we can't be taught their communication system. So it's a much more complicated story than that language is just 'communication plus complexity', or our system with a little less complexity and you get 'cat'.

I don't find the term 'language faculty' helpful at all - I suggest tossing it away and things might be a bit easier to talk about!
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #4 on: May 24, 2014, 06:35:13 AM »
jkpate, that's an interesting point. However, wouldn't that mean that we'd at least be able to understand cat? Maybe we would inherently speak it in a way that is too complicated for other animals to understand, but a simpler system would be within what we would understand, as part of understanding the more complex system. I think.

Quote from: freknu
To say that humans are superior because we ended up with one trait over another is, well, childish. Oh, and dare I say, circular.
I'd agree with you there. I've never understood the need to make and adjust such claims in light of how they're frequently falsified either :)

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But humans are the only ones that intentionally communicate with a learned system of symbols that have been agreed upon by a community.
What's unique to humans is the arbitrariness of the sign? I don't think that's true. The details are not something I'm particularly familiar with, but I think some other species use arbitrary signs. For example, apes have been taught to use bits and pieces of (arbitrary) sign languages, and prairie dogs have different dialects in different locations.

To phrase the question another way, then, why can't humans speak cat?

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All species have special things that other species don't do - that is why they have their own niche and adaptive pressures resulted in them speciating in the first place. Humans, like other animals, have unique traits.
But then why do we assume that there is some special trait that is inherently better than the traits of all other species that allows us to use Language?

The impression I get from Chomskian approaches to language evolution is that there was a time when humans communicated like other animals then there was a genetic mutation (he says Merge) that allowed humans to have Language. And that missing linguistic link is all that separates us from animals and all that critically supports our ability to speak. Its presence and development is deduced from the "fact" that we clearly have a more evolved communication system, and so forth.
I'm question those assumptions.

If all species (or some?) just communicate "differently", then there's no reason to assume a basic logical/mathematical difference between the systems; rather, they may differ in complex ways, not just one better system replacing an inferior one.
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Offline freknu

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #5 on: May 24, 2014, 06:50:16 AM »
One thing that I always come to think of in arguments like this is that other animals don't require language to the degree that humans do. Whether there is a biological/neurological aspect of human language or whether other animals lack this, is irrelevant — other animals do not need language like we do.

If any other species developed the same need for communication, what is there to say that they wouldn't develop something similar to human language, or that it couldn't be analysed similar to human language?

These are quite big assumptions being made, all hinging upon some axiom that human language is "special".

If you compare pit hole eyes to vertebrate eyes, one could say that the pit hole eyes are more primitive, but if you compare fish eyes to human eyes, which one is more primitive?

And do all animals need vertebrate eyes? Why would vertebrate eyes be special?
« Last Edit: May 24, 2014, 06:52:22 AM by freknu »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #6 on: May 24, 2014, 08:19:27 AM »
Quote
One thing that I always come to think of in arguments like this is that other animals don't require language to the degree that humans do. Whether there is a biological/neurological aspect of human language or whether other animals lack this, is irrelevant — other animals do not need language like we do.
Humans don't necessarily need to be able to fly. But that doesn't mean that we happen to have a dormant ability to fly, even though we don't use it.
While I agree that there may be issues of whether species need language or not, we can't assume that all have the potential for it. It may develop specifically when a species does need it, for one thing.

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If any other species developed the same need for communication, what is there to say that they wouldn't develop something similar to human language, or that it couldn't be analysed similar to human language?
I'd imagine this to be the case, yes. But that suggests that human language is some abstract thing, for example something that could be represented mathematically. As it is, I get the impression that Human Language is viewed as a human-specific trait. I'm not sure WHY that is believed, but it is a popular opinion.

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These are quite big assumptions being made, all hinging upon some axiom that human language is "special".
Indeed. It all comes back to that, and nothing more.

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And do all animals need vertebrate eyes? Why would vertebrate eyes be special?
Squid eyes are said to be incredibly similar to human eyes.
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Offline freknu

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #7 on: May 24, 2014, 08:28:36 AM »
While I agree that there may be issues of whether species need language or not, we can't assume that all have the potential for it.

Of course, not!

It may develop specifically when a species does need it, for one thing.

Which is why it seems so strange, why judge animal communication based on our form of language, based on our evolution, when no other animal seems to have developed any similar form of language?

That in itself seems assumptive.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #8 on: May 24, 2014, 09:13:23 AM »
Quote
Which is why it seems so strange, why judge animal communication based on our form of language, based on our evolution, when no other animal seems to have developed any similar form of language?
Seems to line up with what Con Slobodchikoff says on the subject-- judge animal communication systems within their behavior, not compared to ours.
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Offline jkpate

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #9 on: May 24, 2014, 06:36:54 PM »
jkpate, that's an interesting point. However, wouldn't that mean that we'd at least be able to understand cat? Maybe we would inherently speak it in a way that is too complicated for other animals to understand, but a simpler system would be within what we would understand, as part of understanding the more complex system. I think.

I don't think so. If a learner assumes that there is hierarchical structure when there is not hierarchical structure, then the learner could produce systematically wrong parses. If accurate parses are necessary for understanding, then such a learner would not understand the system. Whether this happens would depend on exactly how the learner is set up (whether it has a strong bias for having branches in both directions, for example) and what the data look like (in terms of amount and the likelihood of spurious hierarchical regularities).
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #10 on: May 24, 2014, 08:06:38 PM »
My four-year-old is pretty convinced that he can speak Cat (or, "Catanese" as he calls it). I am surprised by my inability to come up with persuasive arguments to demonstrate that he can't.

More concretely, do any animal communication systems engage in metapragmatic functions? I'm not aware of any that do, and it's hard to imagine a more defining feature of human language use (cf. threads like this one).

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #11 on: May 24, 2014, 09:35:46 PM »
Quote
More concretely, do any animal communication systems engage in metapragmatic functions? I'm not aware of any that do, and it's hard to imagine a more defining feature of human language use (cf. threads like this one).
Humans are indeed above the beasts, simply because we proclaim that we are. Interesting thought.
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #12 on: May 25, 2014, 01:21:06 AM »
Quote
More concretely, do any animal communication systems engage in metapragmatic functions? I'm not aware of any that do, and it's hard to imagine a more defining feature of human language use (cf. threads like this one).
Humans are indeed above the beasts, simply because we proclaim that we are. Interesting thought.

Maybe, but I'm not sure what that has to do with metapragmatics, so I'm afraid it's not the same as my thought.

(That was a metapragmatic sentence. So was that. And this. :D)

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #13 on: May 25, 2014, 06:11:08 AM »
I'm speaking a little more broadly, but I also don't know of any species other than humans that discusses such things. I'm skeptical about that implying any sort of "superiority" but you certainly do seem to be right that metapragmatics (along with other kinds of self-analysis) seem to be lacking in other animals, at least as far as we know.
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #14 on: May 25, 2014, 08:13:25 AM »
If non-human communication systems don't allow for metapragmatics, it certainly seems fair to say that human languages are superior tools for metapragmatic discourse. I've never found human languages particularly good at describing the precise location of pollen, but then again our metapragmatic capabilities do allow us to specify bum-waggling protocols on the fly!