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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Ethology

Why Animals Talk The New Science of Animal Communication

Popular Science New
By: Arik Kershenbaum(Author)
273 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Viking Books
Why Animals Talk is a highly stimulating and thought-provoking exercise in trying to understand animals on their terms.
Why Animals Talk
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  • Why Animals Talk ISBN: 9780241559857 Hardback Jan 2024 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
Price: £19.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles Recommended titles

About this book

Why Animals Talk is an exhilarating journey through the untamed world of animal communication. Drawing on the author's extensive research and observations of animals in the wild, the book shatters conventional wisdom and invites you to experience communication through the eyes of animals themselves.

From the majestic howls of wolves and the enchanting chatter of parrots to the melodic clicks of dolphins and the spirited grunts of chimpanzees, these diverse and seemingly bizarre expressions are far from mere noise. In fact, they hold secrets that we are just beginning to decipher. For example, wolves – just like humans – possess unique accents that distinguish their howls, and not only do dolphins give themselves names, but they also respond excitedly to recordings of the whistles of long-lost companions.

Why Animals Talk unravels the mysteries of animal communication, and in doing so reveals profound insights into our own language and how it relates to the world around us.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Captivating and stimulating
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 29 Feb 2024 Written for Hardback

    Zoologist Arik Kershenbaum previously impressed with The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy. That popular work on astrobiology was a diversion from his actual research on vocal communication in animals. Rather than asking what animals are saying, Kershenbaum is foremost interested in *why* animals talk in the first place. How do they live, what do they need to say to each other, and are there any parallels with human language? The answers Kershenbaum presents are a highly stimulating and thought-provoking exercise in decentering the human experience and trying to understand animals on their terms.

    Obviously, animals communicate via many more channels than just sound and Kershenbaum happily admits that each of these is worthy of their own book. He focuses on vocal communication both because sound is a very useful medium, and because it interests us as a vocal species ourselves. He further narrows down his approach by discussing six animal species: wolves, dolphins (the subject of many misconceptions), parrots, hyraxes (which look like rodents but are related to elephants), gibbons, and chimpanzees. As alluded to above, the core idea propelling this book is that "why animals need to talk is the important question to ask before we can answer how and what animals are saying" (p. 14). What these six species share is that they are highly social and negotiate their social environment using complex communication. Though Kershenbaum promises to put the animals first and the science second, I found his take on the science to make for a particularly captivating book. How so? Well...

    First, he stresses the importance of studying animals in the wild, in the natural environment they evolved in. This is hard and time-consuming work and the literature on e.g. hyraxes and gibbons is rather limited, while that on wolves risks being biased by the preponderance of research done in Yellowstone National Park. Our knowledge of parrots is coloured by their popularity as pets, whereas their communal lives in the wild are rather different. Only chimpanzees can be said to be intensively studied in the wild. Kershenbaum's conviction is that "we can't understand animal communication without understanding animal societies" (p. 10). Each chapter therefore furnishes you with the basics of their communication—the howls of wolves, the whistles of dolphins, the squawks and whistles of parrots, the multisyllabic songs of hyraxes and gibbons, and the many grunts and hoots of chimpanzees—and how these grease the wheels of their social interactions.

    Closely related to this is the question of what can be learned from the various attempts at teaching animals human language, such as Irene Pepperberg's work with the African grey parrot Alex, dogs such as Chaser, or decades of experiments with primates. Though some animals show impressive linguistic capabilities, the amount of training required is often extraordinary. The conceptual flaw with such research is that you are training animals to understand human words, ultimately revealing more about our than their language. In the chapter on dolphins, Kershenbaum pointedly asks: "Why *should* dolphins have a language *just like ours*? Are human languages really the template for the way that animal communication must work?" (p. 75).

    This brings me to the idea that I consider to be the showstopper of the book. To really understand animal communication means kissing goodbye to the human-centric notion of words. "Just because we've developed a language based on distinct words doesn't mean that is how others must communicate" (p. 74). Kershenbaum hammers home this message explicitly in the chapters on wolves, dolphins, hyraxes, and gibbons. What these species share is that there rarely is a one-to-one relationship between a sound and a concept. Even alarm calls warning of predators vary in some species. The six animals explored here use vocal communication to "relate to emotional states, rather than intellectual ones" (p. 241). Thus, there is no dictionary to draw up, no key or cypher to find to "crack the code". He is sceptical of recent attempts that throw deep-learning algorithms, neural networks, or artificial intelligence at the problem. We should focus on understanding the animals first, "rather than hoping for human-like information, and searching doggedly for what we *want* to find" (p. 77). Wrapping your head around this one is an exercise in decentering the human experience.

    It should be evident by now that there is an anti-anthropocentric streak running through this book. But next to the usual "humans are not the pinnacle of evolution" sentiment espoused by biologists, he also objects to the idea that animals converse with each other like humans but in their own languages. This is just anthropocentrism in reverse that still takes the human experience as the universal yardstick. Kershenbaum instead explodes the idea: animals do not have human-like language *because they have no need to*. "Nothing about the behaviour of wolves or dolphins or even humpbacks gives any indication that having a language like ours would be useful to them" (p. 243). While this may sound controversial, examining the details of their lives reveals that, compared to the open-ended language of humans, "the amount of information they need to convey to each other is, in most cases, limited" (p. 235). Though we find elements of linguistic ability scattered all over the animal world, no other species combines these as we do. Kershenbaum admits that human language really does seem to be unique, or rather uniquely weird. "It's almost as if words were an afterthought, an embellishment on communication. Unnecessary glitter attached to the ordinary kind of signals that animals send to each other all the time" (p. 219). I am going to invoke what I wrote elsewhere about Justin Gregg's book If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal. Rather than concluding that human-like language does not readily evolve, maybe we should conclude that it readily does not evolve. Gregg argued along the same lines when he concluded that most animals seem to be getting by just fine without evolving human-like intelligence.

    Why Animals Talk is a focused affair that organises its contents in each chapter with helpful subheadings. While the biological details are interesting by themselves, what elevates this book is how Kershenbaum forces you to rethink linguistic concepts you have always taken for granted so that you may understand animals on their terms, not ours. In the process, he throws out as many unanswered questions as he provides insightful answers to others. Needless to say, I found Why Animals Talk to be an incredibly captivating and stimulating book.
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Dr Arik Kershenbaum is a zoologist, College Lecturer and Fellow at Girton College, University of Cambridge. He has researched animal vocal communication for over a decade in Europe, Israel and the United States and has published more than twenty academic publications on the topic. His previous book, The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy, was a Times/Sunday Times Book of the Year and was published in nine languages.

Popular Science New
By: Arik Kershenbaum(Author)
273 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Viking Books
Why Animals Talk is a highly stimulating and thought-provoking exercise in trying to understand animals on their terms.
Media reviews

"Wonderful [...] Endlessly interesting and beautifully written"
Daily Telegraph

"Steady-headed and fun"
Sunday Times

"Kershenbaum has a rare talent for scientific storytelling [...] Read this book and, I promise, you'll never listen to animals in the same way again"
– Jessica Pierce, author of Who's a Good Dog?

"Kershenbaum helps us perceive how other animals sense their worlds, and in doing so, explores the evolutionary roots of our own advanced language skills. It is fitting that a book about communication is so conversational and engaging, and it will give you a new perspective on the richness of nature"
– Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

"Quirky, insightful [...] based on a deep understanding of recent research"
– Tim Clutton-Brock, author of Meerkat Manor

"A new look at a fascinating subject"
– Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape

"An entertaining journey through the science of animal communication, taking us into the oceanic world of dolphin clicks and teaching us about wolves' accents – all while shedding light on our own language and world."

"A delightfully entertaining journey through the science of animal communication, Why Animals Talk takes us into the oceanic world of dolphin clicks, teaches us about wolves' accents, shows us the power of parrot' chatter – all whiles shedding light on out own language and world"
inews, The best new books out this January

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