Do Dogs Speak Human?
David Bellos is Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also a professor of French and comparative literature. He has won many awards for his translations of Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, and others, including the Man Booker International Translator’s Award. He also received the Prix Goncourt for George Perec: A Life in Words.
David Bellos: Well, are humans the only species that have language? It’s a question that's been asked many times, but to think about it I’d like you to imagine a dog.... and he’s a very thoughtful dog and he can hear humans barking. He can hear that amongst the funny noises humans make there are a number of signals with fixed meanings like "walk," "sit," "heel," and he ponders as to whether the rest of the noise they make is just barking or whether it constitutes a language, and I'd like to fix on that idea. I mean, obviously it’s a silly fable, but it’s not completely silly in that, precisely because we do not understand the noises that dogs make except for a few individual signals, such as "Let me out of here" or "Take me for a walk" or "There's an intruder," we therefore say it’s not a language because it consists only of a discretely or a fixed number of specific signals that don’t change, and the rest is just dogs barking.
Dogs could, in this fable, have exactly that same understanding of human language. The problem is that we can’t translate between dog and human. If we could, then we might know whether dogs have a language or not. The condition for the existence of a language, or what we think of as a language, is its translatability. So the boundary between our species and others is indeed an unbridgeable gulf until we learn to translate them. If we could translate any of them, we would then have a much more intelligent and interesting view as to what makes human language different from. But there's no earthly reason, I mean, given that language, as I've said at the beginning, is a form of human behavior, why a dog or a cow should have a human form of behavior. They’re not humans, so it’s a species difference. What would a dog want to say anyway that would be of interest to us? Only a limited number of things where we interact on specific points.
And so the argument that only human language is language and that animal communication systems, however sophisticated they are, and some of them are quite sophisticated, are not languages because they consist of discrete signals is a kind of—it’s a circular argument; it’s a self-fulfilling thing. And I think we should be a little bit more interested in the complexity and the variability of animal communication systems and less rigid about this distinction between what is a language and what is not a language.
The award-winning translator and language expert examines the intricacies of human language. We ask, do animal communication systems measure up?
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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