At a recent conference, three great questions were tossed my way. I only gave brief responses and then gave sources to find deeper answers. They included do animals use language? What’s the origin of capitalism? And, what do we make of the Old Testament when it seems to suggest God sanctioned genocide (want a jump start on this question, check out this past post)? I would like spend some time on each one and look at them in little more depth. Also, I’d like to give some sources for further reading.
For today, let’s just tackle the first one, do animals “talk” to each other and is their communication like ours?
It all started because in my Christian worldview presentation “The Right Worldview Prepares Students For College and the Real World”, in there I make the point that humans are the only creatures that use language. One person later told about an article that said that dolphins communicate too. So, are humans unique in their ability to use language? Is that one of our “God’s image” human uniqueness traits? Or can animals, like apes, bees and dolphins also use language?
The short answer is this, humans do seem to be the only species that can use language. Yes, other creatures can communicate, but not in the complex syntax and abstraction that we can.
Michael Egnor has written much on this topic, in his post Do Animals Have Language? he says the following:
We should begin with an examination of what we mean by language. A meaningful notation or event is a sign. A sign presents to the mind an object other than itself for attention. The word “cat” is a sign. A fire alarm is a sign. Darkening clouds that mean rain is a sign.
There are, for our purposes, two kinds of signs — signals and designators. Signals are objects or events that draw attention to something else in physical or temporal proximity. Fire alarms, smoke (signifying fire), dinner bells, and such are signals. Signals are linked intimately to the object to which they point — the fire alarm sounds loudly in the vicinity of the fire, the smoke rises from the fire, and dinner bells are rung in the dining room.
Designators are words that refer to the objects that they name. Designators are arbitrary, in the sense that there is no intimate linkage between the designator and the object designated. “Cat” is a designator of the animal of that name, although the letters c-a-t have no intimate physical link with the animal designated, aside from the linguistic link. Designators are abstract.
Signals are not language. Human language is an abstract process that relates designators in grammatical relations to objects designated. Language has a variety of properties, including semantics, arbitrariness between the designator and the object of the designation, unlimited productivity (an infinite number of sentences can be produced via a grammar that governs relations of designators), reference to particulars or to abstract concepts denoted by the designator that are not physical objects in the vicinity, among others.
But I’d say it is even more than that, our physical bodies are much finer tuned as well. Consider our larynx and our facial muscles. Compare that to animals. Beyond that, we can also communicate with writing, drawing, painting, choreography, cinema, music and other such activities.
Consider too that we can learn various languages and can create new languages quite quickly. Consider the rise of programing languages over the past half century!
What other creature can do such things? None that I know of.
For more of Michael Egnor’s articles on this topic, feel free to check out the following for your perusal enjoyment:
Also, feel free to grab Tom Wolfe’s book on this topic: “The Kingdom of Speech”.
Lastly, Wesley J. Smith commented on this topic in his post that talks about humans, dolphins and language, No, Dolphins Don’t “Talk” Like Humans. Also, feel free to check out his other articles that cover bioethics and human exceptionalism in general.
The apostle Peter taught us to have answers for our faith, which is what I try to do here. I would love for you to follow iApologia to get the latest updates to your inbox. Plus, I will send you my Free Quick Guide why that gives 8 reasons science points to God.
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