What animals say
by Rob Tiller
I wasn’t planning on sharing any more of my Alaska brown bear pictures, but changed my mind. Processing the pictures took me to a happy place. I really enjoyed being with these animals (at a respectful distance, of course), and learning a little about their lives.
This has been a particularly sad week in animal news. There was a huge bloody slaughter of dolphins in the Faroe Islands. The U.S. government has authorized hunters selected by lottery to kill some of the few remaining bison at the Grand Canyon. And as usual, with no headlines, hundreds of millions of farm animals were killed to provide human food.
The way we think about non-human animals obviously affects the degree of brutality we’re prepared to inflict on them, but it has less obvious effects on how we think about ourselves. We generally see them as distant and inferior, with no concerns as important as our own, and lacking in our intelligence and cultural achievements. We attach great significance to their lack of human language.
But animals teach us something about human language without needing that language. First, they get along without it just fine. That is, in the wild they manage to do the same things that are our highest priorities — get food, shelter, reproduction, friendship, community — without human language. Indeed, it is likely that homo sapiens got along well enough for many tens of thousands of years without the language abilities that we now think of as setting us apart.
So animals demonstrate that language is not really as fundamental to our lives as we tend to think. Of course, at times language is very useful, and also fun to play with. But while it helps us solve problems, it also creates them. One example is how easily it creates the illusion of a vast divide between humans and other animals, and how easily it justifies human domination of other groups and forms of life.
We often forget that words are only symbols, with no fully reliable connection to objects or actions. No matter how beautifully and elaborately they are grouped together, they can never completely and fully reflect reality. At their very best they are heuristics, practical shortcuts for thinking and getting things done.
This shortcutting utility also accounts for a lot of problems. Our word choices direct focus our attention in one direction, so that we have trouble seeing in another. Once we’ve got firmly in mind the definition of humans as superior creatures, it’s difficult for us to think about the significance of, say, bears to other bears, or chickens to other chickens.
A similar problem occurs with racial categories. Once we’ve concocted a definition of racial characteristics and decided which ones are desirable, we have a hard time not favoring the ones we initially desired. Language around race is part of how we built our racial caste system, and it also makes it very hard to dismantle it.
This is a problem inherent in the way we usually think. But it helps, I think, to recognize that language is flexible, not fixed, and our intuitions can help us modify or work around linguistic limitations. Some part of us already knows, despite the limits of our received language, that our cruelty to animals is wrong, and we have the capacity of finding new ways of communicating and acting on that.