Tag Archives: domesticated animals

“Communication and language in animals” course for everyone

In the past few years I have given with great success the course “Communication and language in animals. Recent developments in scientific research” at various universities in The Netherlands for the Higher Education for Older People (HOVO), in which I discuss the current scientific state of affairs with regard to the natural communication of all kinds of animals and the results from language research with various animals. At the HOVOs this course was only available for people of 50 years and older. I repeatedly got requests to organize this course also for people younger than 50 and now it’s time to do so. The Institute for Animals in Philosophy and Science is organizing this November a 3-day course “Communication and language in animals” for people of all ages.


The horse Clever Hans, early 20th century Berlin. Hans purportedly could answer many human questions...

The horse Clever Hans, early 20th century Berlin. Hans purportedly could answer many human questions…

Birds sing, dogs bark, and humans talk: everywhere animals are communicating. In the animal kingdom communication takes place in all kinds of ways. At a certain moment in evolution animal communication developed into human language. The question that scientists and philosophers have been asking for generations, is whether humans have a lonely position as the only animals with language. From the beginning of the 20th century many studies have been carried out in which scientists tried to teach all kinds of nonhuman animals (parts of) the human language. Science has also made a lot of progress in the study of the natural communicaton of animals. In this course we will discuss the current state of affairs with regard to research on communication and language in animals. The course will give you a broad overview, in which the communication and language research with nonhuman animals is presented in a critical manner.

Day 1. Saturday 2 November: Communication and human language: Characteristics and definitions. Language development in human children. The alarm calls of vervet monkeys and prairie dogs. The communication and dances of honeybees. The communication of whales and dolphins.

What information about predators do these prairie dogs communicate to each other?

What information about predators do these prairie dogs communicate to each other?

On the first day we will discuss the various kinds of communication that exist. In order to make a proper distinction between animal communication and human language, the characteristics of human language are presented. We discuss the relationship between language and brain and we will look at language acquisition in human children. We will also look at the interpretation of animal communication: only an expression of passions and emotions, or can animals also refer to various things in the outside world? What meaning can be found in the alarm calls of vervet monkeys and prairie dogs? We will also discuss the dances of honeybees, with which bees can transmit information about food locations. Finally, the natural communication of whales and dolphins is presented, including whale song.

Day 2. Saturday 9 November: The natural communication of, and language research with, the great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

The chimpanzee Tatu makes the sign for BLACK.

The chimpanzee Tatu makes the sign for BLACK.

How do our closest relatives communicate? In the past few decades our knowledge has increased about the various forms of communication of the great apes. We will discuss the communicative nature of the facial expressions of great apes, their particular vocalizations, and the communicative gestures that great apes naturally use. Next, the language research with great apes is presented. For more than a century, scientists have attempted to teach a human language to great apes in all kinds of, often controversial, studies. Chimpanzees and other apes were used in experiments in order to make them pronounce human spoken words. Later, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans were taught signs with which to communicate with humans. Famous apes like the chimpanzee Washoe and the gorilla Koko learned over a hundred signs. Nevertheless, soon the ape language controversy started, because in what way can we talk about actual language in these apes? We will discuss the methodological pitfalls and mistakes in interpretations and conclusions. I will also present my own study of the apes in language research. Finally, we will also discuss the research with Kanzi and other bonobos who learned to communicate by using geometric symbols (lexigrams).

Day 3. Saturday 16 November: Bird song and bird calls. Language research with dolphins, sealions and parrots. Understanding of human communicative signals by dogs and other domesticated animals. Language research with dogs. Evolution of human language.

Songbirds sing songs, but also have all kinds of calls with which they communicate.

Songbirds sing songs, but also have all kinds of calls with which they communicate.

All bird species have various kinds of calls: to remain in contact with each other, to express emotions, to warn for predators. How do you recognize these calls when you hear them in your garden or outside? Besides using calls, songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds also sing songs with a specific structure and function, which they learn from their parents. What are the similarities between birdsong and human language? Next, we will discuss language research with other animals than apes: Can dolphins and sealions carry out commands that are given by humans in the form of signs? Can parrots communicate with humans by speaking human words? And what do dogs and other domesticated animals understand of our communication, like pointing and gaze direction? Recent studies have shown that some dogs can understand hundreds of human words for all kinds of objects. Finally, we will discuss several theories about the evolution of human language.

After this course you will have a fresh, new look on the ways in which animals communicate and you will have knowledge regarding the question in what way we can talk about language in other animals. Besides surprising information about the animals around us you will also get an impression of the controversies in this field of study.

For whom? The course is meant for people who work with animals professionally, for students, and for anyone interested in animals and eager to broaden their knowledge about them. A specific former education is not required. The course will be given in the Dutch language, but a passive knowledge of English is convenient, given that some of the films that I will show are not subtitled.

Practical information. The course will be given on three Saturdays in November: November 2, 9 and 16. Each day will start at 11 o’clock in the morning and will end at half past 5 in the afternoon. It is recommended that one takes the whole course of three days, but one can also register for 1 or 2 days of the course. The registration fee is 160 euros for the whole course (students with student ID card 100 euros), or 60 euros (40 euros for students) for each separate day. The price includes a (vegan) lunch and coffee and tea.

LocationMadame de Pompadour, Langsom 28 in Amsterdam. This location is very well accessible both by car (there is even free parking!) and by public transport.

You can register by sending a message to estebanyes@gmail.com or by filling out the form below: 

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Marc Bekoff in The Netherlands

On Saturday April 2 and Sunday April 3 Marc Bekoff was in The Netherlands for a seminar. The ethologist Marc Bekoff is a former professor of Ecology en Evolutionairy Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder  and he has done a lot of research and written extensively about play behaviour, morality, emotions and consciousness in animals. He’s done many field studies on the behaviour of wild coyotes and wolves. A few of his most important books are Animal play: Evolutionary, comparative, and ecological perspectives (edited together with John Byers, Cambridge University Press, 1998), The smile of the dolphin: Remarkable accounts of animal emotions (Random House/Discovery Books, 2000), Minding animals: Awareness, emotions, and heart (Oxford University Press, 2002), The cognitive animal: Empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition (edited together with Colin Allen and Gordon Burghardt, MIT Press, 2002), The emotional lives of animals: A leading scientist explores animal joy, sorrow, and empathy and why they matter (New World Library, 2007), Wild justice: The moral lives of animals (together with Jessica Pierce, University of Chicago Press, 2009) and The animal manifesto: Six reasons for expanding our compassion footprint (New World Library, 2010). In 2000 he set up the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies together with chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall.

Marc Bekoff in discussion with the audience

The seminar was organized by Astrid Verkuyl and her colleagues at Dogschool Feedback in Aalsmeer. The seminar itself took place in the tropical garden of Tropisch Rozenland in Burgerveen, where unfortunately enough the airplanes coming and going to Schiphol flew over low, causing the conversation to stop for a while. Otherwise, the organization of the seminar was excellent.

In his seminar Bekoff spoke about the emotions and consciousness of animals, and the moral and play behaviour of animals. He also showed some great videos of playing dogs, coyotes, dolphins, and polar bears. Below I will present some of the interesting things that Bekoff had to say about play in animals.

Charles Darwin already said in The descent of man from 1871 that happiness and pleasure in animals can be seen very well when they play together. Even insects play together: “the lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, etc., when playing together, like our own children. Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber (7. ‘Recherches sur les Moeurs des Fourmis,’ 1810, p. 173), who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies,” p. 61. Where I’d like to mention that nowadays we wouldn’t talk about “lower” animals, the way Darwin does here, but about “other” animals, without there being a ladder from low to high, with humans as the pinnacle. The reference to Huber is something to find out more about, as his research on playing ants sounds very interesting.

Bekoff also said that many birds show play behaviour as well. Play requires cooperation, fairness, on-going negotiations, apology, forgiveness, trust, reading others’ intentions and beliefs (having a theory of mind), and empathy (where Bekoff referred to the possible role of mirror neurons in empathy).

Animals know that they are playing by the following behaviours. First, there are clear play signals, of which the play bow takes place in many animals (dogs and cats, as well as wolves, hyaenas, lions, etc.). These communicative signals are honest in nature. Deceptive use of play signals is extremely rare. Also, in play role reversal takes place. A dominant animal lets him- or herself be dominated in play, like in a chase game where the dominant animal is chased. Furthermore, self-handicapping is shown in play: the animals restrain themselves and don’t bite as hard as they can, but modify it so the playbiting doesn’t hurt. Animals also make continual micro-adjustments of their behaviour in order not to hurt each other. Wildebeests play very roughly, but they take care not to hurt each other with their sharp horns. Finally, the sequences of behaviour during play are very variable: there is hitting, slapping, mounting, jumping and other behaviours. Which is in contrast to for example aggressive behaviour, which is much less variable. In play behaviour we can see behaviours from aggression, mating and predation, but clearly accompanied by play signals and in a variable way.

Marc also showed a very nice video of playing dolphins, studied by Kathleen Dudzinski of the Dolphin Communication Project. Dolphins modify their communicative signals in play. They then approach each other from the side, and not the front, as they do in aggression. There’s also lots of affectionate rubbing with their pectoral fins. He also showed a beautiful video of a polar bear in Brookfield Zoo near Chicago who had grown up without his mother. Another young polar bear showed him his toys in order to get him to play. Eventually the orphan bear started playing at last. Some animals never learn to play again after a trauma like growing up by themselves. By looking at whether animals play or not we can thus learn something about their early development. The emotional well-being of an animal can also be read from its play behaviour.

Eric and the dog Jimmy play with a ball

Animals in the wild play less than domesticated animals. Young wild coyotes play about 2 to 3% and young deer 10% of the time. In the wild there has to be abundant food in order to be able to play, given that play itself costs a lot of energy. Baboon mothers restrict the play of their young when there is less food available. There is also a risk at predation when playing. Domesticated animals are usually provided with enough food and usually don’t run the risk of being the victim of a predator.

Other signals with which dogs, wolves and coyotes initiate play are the following. Besides bowing, they also bark, usually when the play bow has not led to attention from the other animal they want to play with. They also show exaggerated approaches, including a bouncing gait and rushing to one another. They also show face-powing, like a light slap in the face. They approach and withdraw back and forth. And they use subtle movements of the head, eyes, shoulders and whole body.

Bekoff has done extensive research on the play bow. It’s a stereotyped, fixed behaviour that is easy to recognize as a very clear signal that the behaviour that will follow is not aggressive. There are four rules of play in animals: 1. Ask first, 2. Be honest, 3. Mind your manners, and 4. Admit when you’re wrong (for example, dogs make a play bow when they have bitten another to show that they didn’t mean any harm). Marc has also written a fantastic children’s book about play in animals, Animals at play: The rules of the game (Temple University Press, 2008), in which he shows in a clear way the most important aspects of play in animals.

Next Summer Bekoff will be back in The Netherlands. He will then speak at the Minding Animals II conference, which will be held from July 5 to 12, 2012, at the Ethics Institute of the University of Utrecht. This conference will discuss the scientific, ethical and social aspects of humans’ interaction with and use of non-human animals. Click here for more information on the Minding Animals conference. Click here for Marc Bekoff’s website.

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Filed under Animal Communication, Animal Consciousness, Animal Ethics, General