Animal Babel

How Animals Communicate

edited by Thomas A. Sebeok
Indiana University Press, 1,152 pp., $57.50

Among the surprises that have come from biology in the last few decades is the finding that animals so often communicate with each other. The discovery that so many species have a sort of language has been one of the intellectual set-backs that our “gut feeling” of superiority has suffered since Copernicus showed that the Earth is not the center of the solar system and Darwin revealed that our physical ancestors were rather like apes. Until quite recently it has been generally assumed that human language is unique, and certainly our power of communication greatly exceeds that of all other animals in complexity and versatility. But it now becomes clear that communication is a fundamental property of all living things. The discovery of the mechanism of inheritance by nucleic acids (DNA) has shown that every cell of every organism is controlled by the operations of what can only be called a set of instructions embodied in an elaborate code. Through every moment of our lives these instructions are read and copied by processes that are justly called transcription and translation, and so used by the cells to help them to perform their daily duties by making the correct new proteins. These discoveries have compelled biochemists to think about such unfamiliar matters as the nature of codes and languages, while linguists must come to realize that what they thought was unique to man is a universal property of life.

Some people would like to evade such uncomfortable thoughts by holding that when we speak of the genetic code we are only using a metaphor or analogy. But how else could the phenomena be described? What is involved is the need for a complete reassessment of the meaning we intend to convey when we speak of signs and languages. The American philosopher Peirce was the first in modern times to realize this problem clearly when in 1906 he founded the science of semiotics—the study of signs and symbols. He realized even then that symbolism is an essential element in all life—an assertion whose meaning must seem far from evident at first hearing. But the depth of his insight has become clear with the discovery that the nucleic acids function as stores of information, using an alphabet of four letters to form the sixty-four words whose combinations provide the language that controls all living things.

Since Peirce the science of semiotics has shown a mighty growth in many directions, some of them bedeviled by a very elaborate and arcane terminology. The students of signs have indulged in an orgy of inventing new ones. Fortunately zoosemiotics, the study of animal language, has managed to keep clear of the more esoteric flights of classification. Thomas Sebeok of Indiana University, though he coined the word zoosemiotics in 1963, has had the good sense to call his large new book simply How Animals Communicate. In it he brings together writers about the subject in every single group of animals from amoeba to man, and indeed …

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Letters

Do Animals Communicate? June 15, 1978