Ant arithmetic and prairie dog conversation

One of the points I wanted to make in last week’s post was that studies in animal cognition suggest the presence of mathematics in the behavior of non-human species – the ants, for example, who can be seen to pass on quantitative information to other ants. We don’t see the mathematics they may be doing because the form it takes is internal to them and their community. A paper that I referenced, by Zhanna Reznikova and Boris Ryabko  (Numerical competence in animals, with an insight from ants) describes studies where it was possible to observe ants communicating the location of a food source using what appeared to be arithmetic.

Informally, the ants were forced to develop a new code based on simple arithmetic operations, that is, to perform an operation similar to passing the ‘name’ of the ‘special’ branch nearest to the branch with the trough, followed by the number which had to be added or subtracted in order to find the branch with the trough.

(This paper can be found on Reznikova’s website under publications)  

This past Thursday, Diane Rehm brought my attention to the work of biologist Con Slobodchikoff, author of a new book, Chasing Dr. Dolittle.  A transcript of the interview can be found here.

On his own website his prairie dog studies are described in this way:

The prairie dog work suggests that prairie dogs have a complex communication system that borders on language. They have different alarm calls for humans, coyotes, domestic dogs, and red-tailed hawks. In addition, the prairie dogs can describe the size and shape of an individual predator. This is the most sophisticated animal language system that has been described to date.

One of the points that Slobodchikoff was making in the interview was that one of the reasons we think that animals don’t have language is that we have not had a way to witness it, no less investigate it.  But Slobodchikoff found a way with prairies dogs and in the interview he made an important distinction between communication and language.

Well, here’s the distinction actually. Simple communication is just the production and reception of signals. So a radio does simple communication. There’s no thinking involved. Language, on the other hand, has many different components. One of the components is it has flexibility. So the animal can decide what kind of signal to send in a particular situation. It’s not a fixed sort of thing. It’s not you push this button you get this output. You push that button you get a different output. The animal can decide.

The animal also can intend to send the signal. So there’s intentionality. There’s also novelty. The animal can make up new signals or combine signals in different ways that we haven’t seen before. So there are these kinds of different elements. There’s also structure in the sense of there’s usually a grammar associated with that. We have these kinds of elements that go into language that we don’t have in a simple communication system. So in a sense language is a subset of communication. But most scientists have not been willing to give animals the benefit of the doubt and say that animals have language. They are only willing to say that animals can communicate.

But not Slobodchikoff.

And I would say that many animals within that larger frame of communication actually have language using those features that I mentioned. And so if we are able to decode that language then we might, perhaps, be able to communicate with them on a level that they can understand.

What first struck me about the discussion was that Slobodchikoff was suggesting that linguistic structure could exist within an animal’s physiology and behavior (like the head bobbing and back-flattening of a lizard) which would look nothing like our own vocal and written symbols but could involve complex thought.  Some of the strength of his conviction rests on what has been termed evolutionary continuity.

But if you think about the way that we are related to, say, other vertebrates, the fish, the mammals, the birds, the reptiles and so on. We all have a spine. We all have a circulatory system. We all have a nervous system. We all have a brain. And so if you extend all of that then you realize that language production or sound production or visual production is all part of a system where, for example, you have a signal coming into receptors.

The receptors send this along the nervous system to the brain. The brain makes a decision about what to do. And then sends signals along the nervous system to sound production organs or to visual production organs and so on. And we have that. And other animals have that, too. And so what I’m arguing with the discord system theory is that there is evolutionary continuity in all of these morphological structures and all of these physiological structures that we have and that other animals have, as well.

In a very positive review of the book, on the Psychology Today website, evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff makes these references to the text:

Chapter 2 of “Chasing Doctor Dolittle” called “What is Language” lays out the core of Slobodchikoff’s argument. In a nutshell, he uses linguist Charles Hockett’s thirteen design features of human language (pp. 20 ff) and shows how nonhumans share them with us. He concludes this chapter by writing “I show that we already have the evidence to conclude that a number of animal species have semantic signals and that these signals are arranged according to rules of syntax within different contexts.” (p. 35) He then goes on to provide numerous examples of animal language.

I am intrigued by the idea that we might soon see that language is not linked to the tongue as we may have thought, nor to our symbolic expression of words.  Rather it is the work of the body that the symbol accomplishes.  And these blogs travel a similar road with respect to mathematics.  Work like Slobodchikoff’s has the potential to change what we understand language to be, as would similar insights change how we see the fundamentals of mathematics.

4 comments to Ant arithmetic and prairie dog conversation

  • Aiyanna

    i love the way you think

  • happyseaurchin

    Ah, sadly no… I got on the wrong side of some inschool politics. Openness and transparency and the appeal to innocence seldom win in such conditions. I had earmarked this post to share with the students since we were approaching language from different angles.

  • Glad you enjoyed it. Are you teaching?

  • happyseaurchin


    will need to revise my ideas about human and animal wrt language…
    i like the loosening of our attachment of language to the tongue