Animal Vocal Communication and the Adaptive Unconscious

Drew Rendall

Evolutionary thinking has been lurking in certain corridors for a long time; however, in recent years it has been sweeping through the life sciences, leaving major (Kuhn-ian, paradigm-type) theoretical changes in its wake. It has had particular influence in psychology and cognate disciplines (witness the rise of entirely new subfields such as Evolutionary Psychology and, in Philosophy, Evolutionary Ethics). One effect of this influence has been the re-awakening of scientific and popular interest in long-standing but rather nebulous issues: What is it like to be a chimpanzee, a baboon, or a dog? And how much is it like being human? If quite a bit, should we not treat these animals much better, or specially somehow (e.g., grant them certain rights)? Few questions in history have exercised scientists, philosophers and lay people alike more vigorously – or as fruitlessly because, until recently, we lacked the theoretical and methodological tools that would make these questions tractable; hence, we leaned heavily on introspection, for insight about ourselves, and anthropomorphism, to then speculate about other species. Evolutionary theory seemed to promise a solution by providing a theoretically robust and empirically supported framework for understanding ourselves (how we came to be as we are) and other species, thus accounting for its house-sweeping influence. However, at least as deployed recently in comparative psychology, much evolutionary thinking has tended to emphasize only the manifest continuity inherent in biological descent (i.e., faithful replication) and so has assumed that other species are probably very much like us, with the degree of similarity varying in proportion to their phylogenetic (evolutionary) distance from us. (An obvious corollary, for some, is that we should then seriously consider extending many of these species rights and privileges like those humans enjoy.) In this talk, I’ll flirt with these issues through a discussion of natural animal ‘languages’ which, on analogy to human language and its intimate connection to human thought and being, are presumed to represent a privileged source of insight into animal thinking and being. Extending the analogy to human language, systems of animal vocal communication have therefore been researched from an explicitly linguistic perspective to understand the extent to which their languages and the minds they reflect are similar to, and help to account for the nature and evolution of, our own. For example, research has focused on the extent to which animal vocal signals, like human words, communicate symbolic information about the external world; via sounds that are, like words, arbitrarily structured with respect to their referents; which hinges on language-like representational and social cognitive processes (i.e., intentionality, sensu Brentano and Dennett) in caller and listener alike. I’ll suggest that, while a natural enough approach to the study of other species’ communications and minds, such linguistically-inspired research is still patently anthropomorphic (only now licensed by an evolutionary endorsement) and thus potentially quite misleading (if not entirely circular); and that the broader evolutionary justification for such anthropomorphism (biological continuity) and the ethical questions that flow naturally from its apparent research outcomes (e.g., should animals be granted human rights?), are evolutionarily naïve and logically suspect. I’ll offer an alternative, non-linguistic account for the same phenomena in animal vocal communication and, in the process, suggest an escape from anthropomorphic theorizing about other species that does not abandon continuity between humans and animals but rather adopts a somewhat more nuanced approach toward it, hopefully.

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