[percy-l] animal communication and consciousness

Karey L. Perkins karey at charter.net
Thu Dec 12 13:45:48 EST 2002

This conversation about ethics and spirituality in a postmodern world is
fascinating -- but I would like to bring up a different subject....since my
dissertation is on Percy's language theory primarily, which is fairly dense
and complex, that's what I'm trying to tackle and make sense of at the

I know that some of you (I do seem to remember Nikki mentioned something
about this) don't completely agree, or don't know if you agree, on Percy's
take that the animals do not have consciousness.  I'm having a conversation
with a friend at the moment who is convinced that animals have
consciousness, that their communication is only quantitatively different
(due to lesser mental capacity) rather than qualitatively different from
human communication.  And, he is sure that Percy's arguments (or perhaps
just my summary of Percy's arguments) fail to make the point that human
language is any different than that of the animals (to that end, he's sent
many articles on animal communication and one is included below.)

Here is my response (below) to his response -- my questions to the Percy
listserv are:

(1) Is this what Percy would say?  Is this really what his language theory


(2) Do you agree or disagree with Percy's points on animal communication and
consciousness, and why?  (If I have indeed conveyed Percy's points
accurately and effectively.)

Thanks for any feedback!!


----- Original Message -----
From: Karey L. Perkins
To: ken denney
Sent: Thursday, December 12, 2002 1:30 PM
Subject: Re: latest version

Ken  -- thanks for the article, and I will check out the links you sent
before this.

However, it still does not address or refute what Percy is saying --  please
let me know your response to this so I can continue to process it:

Percy is NOT saying animals don't communicate -- they do.  All of these
articles are just that animals communicate.  He is saying the NATURE of
animal communication is different.  I've not quite gotten the entire picture
yet that Percy wants to convey, but here's at least one difference that I
think he's saying:

Animals communicate by instinct and for survival.  In other words, all the
examples you've given me are so the animals can eat, or mate, or some such.
But animals don't communicate to KNOW and UNDERSTAND the world -- unless
it's for survival.  But they don't want to know WHY.  They don't want a
MEANING for what they are doing -- they're doing it because that's how,
biologically, they are programmed.  Even when Bob, my wonderful cat who does
have feelings, is loving to me, it's instinct, but there's no sense of ego
in what he does and no sense of purpose, he does it because that's part of
what a cat does.  He doesn't question, "who am I?" or "who is this other cat
or who is this human being?"  He interacts with those things -- yes, and
communicates with those things -- yes.  But he will only gather information
about that person for his own survival (i.e.: this other animal is a dog who
wishes to eat me so I will avoid it) but not because he wonders about the
nature of the dog ethically, or the meaning of that dog's presence in his
world and his life.  Bob does not wonder about a dog or himself even with
the kind of [meta-] awareness, or self-awareness that a human being has.
It's a QUALITATIVE difference in communication not quantitative -- animals
communicate by instinct for survival, humans communicate for different
reasons -- sometimes for survival, but other times to know and understand
and come up with reasons for our existence.

So I think Percy's definition of consciousness is different from having
feelings (whether physical or emotional feelings) about things.  It's a kind
of over-and-above awareness.  It's not just interacting biologically with
the environment to survive (which can include communication with humans and
other animals) but it is awareness that one is interacting with the
environment, and wondering about the nature of why we interact, the nature
of the world, and the nature of our selves in that we do such things -- and
constructing reasons and paradigms and myths and meanings for that -- our
pets don't wonder why they are loving or why they seek to eat -- they just
do it.

Let me know what you think!!!


----- Original Message -----
From: ken denney
To: Karey L. Perkins
Sent: Wednesday, December 11, 2002 10:24 PM
Subject: Re: latest version

This transcript of a program I heard four years ago on NPR will BLOW YOU


November 13, 1999, Saturday

LENGTH: 2749 words





This is NPR's WEEKLY EDITION. I'm Neal Conan.

Over the years, Radio Expeditions has taken us to an assortment of exotic
locales. These NPR-National Geographic co-productions have visited places as
distant and diverse as Midway Island, Madagascar and Malaysia, and those are
just some of the M's. This past week, though, NPR's Alex Chadwick took
Dorothy's advice from "The Wizard of Oz," clicked his ruby slippers three
times and said, 'There's no place like home.'

(Soundbite of "The Wizard of Oz") Ms. JUDY GARLAND ("Dorothy Gale"): If I
ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than
my own back yard.

ALEX CHADWICK reporting:

Never mind heart's desire, I'll simply tell you this. Any ordinary back yard
holds fantastic creatures we have barely begun to know. That's what made me
think of Oz, and this is why.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: We're walking a long gravel drive near Leesburg, Virginia, about
20 miles from where my brother and I spent boyhood years. I think there's
nothing in these woods I don't already know.

Dr. REX COCROFT (Research Biologist): All right. Well, let's check a couple
small trees over there.


Dr. COCROFT: And let's check over on the other side of that road.

CHADWICK: I'm following a research biologist named Rex Cocroft across his
family's dozen acres of country land. We're looking for a black locust tree,
the kind favored by a particular species of insect, something called a

Dr. COCROFT: OK. So here we are. There's ants running around...

CHADWICK: Oh, yeah.

Dr. COCROFT: ...and lo and behold, here's an aggregation of about eight
treehoppers. When you first look at it, it almost looks like there are 50
insects there, but it's just because they're covered with ants.

CHADWICK: You'd barely notice them, just a small cluster of dark shapes
along one side of a slender step.

Dr. COCROFT: Oh, here's a few more, maybe. Ten treehoppers in this stretch.

CHADWICK: And if we put the accelerometers on the stem, we would hear those
things. They're calling now, you think?

Dr. COCROFT: Probably.

CHADWICK: Scientists have known for years that insects call to each other in
ways that we cannot normally hear. They use twigs and branches like a local
phone line. Dr. Cocroft has learned how to tap in, even though for a while
he didn't think it would be worth the bother.

Dr. COCROFT: I thought, 'Well, those signals are--oh, they're just gonna be
boring and little wispy tappings,' and then the first time I listened to
these treehoppers, especially which seemed to have particularly bizarre
signals, it completely expanded my concept of insect sound. And I could
never go back to thinking of insect sounds as just like crickets or katydids
do. I love those sounds. I love listening to them. But these are completely

CHADWICK: They are completely different in every way, beginning with the
process of listening to them. It will take us hours to get things right.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: All sound is vibration. That's what your ears detect, a trembling
in the air. But many insects send vibrations through the stems of plants.
The bugs are very small, and moving air would actually take more energy.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: In order to listen, we have to sense the vibrations and turn them
into something our ears can hear. A phonograph needle will do it or a small
instrument called an accelerometer. That's what Rex is sticking onto a

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. COCROFT: These sounds are transmitted along the stem as what are called
bending waves, so that the stem itself is actually flexing minutely and that
this flexure is traveling along the stem. So, in that sense, it's very
different from sound. It's sound, but we are not set up to hear it. Our ears
are firmly in the middle of this three-dimensional medium air, and we have
no way of listening to a sound traveling through a stem.

CHADWICK: The black locust sapling looks like a nuisance shrub going in for
an EKG, two thin wires dangling from the branches of rangy scraggle.

Dr. COCROFT: Let's just try this.

CHADWICK: It's a warm September afternoon by a small barn at the edge of a

This is the world we normally hear.

(Soundbite of insects and birds)

CHADWICK: This is the world through the headset that's connected to those

(Soundbite of vibrations)

Dr. COCROFT: OK. I'm also hearing wind right now.


Dr. COCROFT: Yeah, it's a tremendous amount of noise. It's all through the
whole plant.

CHADWICK: Then the air around us grows still. Watching the treehoppers
inches away, I can't see any change, but this is what I hear.

(Soundbite of treehopper calls)

CHADWICK: These are male treehopper calls, Dr. Cocroft explained. And mostly
they all call for the same thing, to interest female treehoppers.

(Soundbite of treehopper calls)

Dr. COCROFT: This is their advertisement calls, so the females are set to
respond to that with another call, but the other little...

(Soundbite of Cocroft imitating a female treehopper call)

Dr. COCROFT: ...sound is from either two males meet each other on the branch
or a male sitting in a little group and another male comes up. They'll give
little signals. How it works and why the males would pay attention to it, I
don't know.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: That's modesty. Rex Cocroft knows better how it works than anyone
who is not already a treehopper. Still, the big questions remain: What are
the rules for insect communication? How did they evolve? The answers may
lead to insights about many creatures, and insects are much easier to study
than other subjects. Whales are famously social and vocal, for instance, but
very difficult to follow around.

Dr. COCROFT: But with something like insects, at least these kinds of
insects, we can watch them in the fields. Their scale is small enough that
we can be quite close by and watch them without disturbing their behavior.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: In Costa Rica, he shot video of a wasp attacking a treehopper
colony and watched the young call for help, and their mother rushed to save
them, kicking the wasp until it flew away.

Dr. COCROFT: They're completely fearless, these females, and if you walk up
to one, put your finger next to her, she'll come up and kick you. And here
you are, this huge, lumbering thing beyond all concept of size for her.

CHADWICK: We think of them as little robots, Dr. Cocroft says, but in some
ways, many insects are like little mammals. They're like us.

I had no idea that an insect young could call to its mother and say, 'Hey,
there's a bully over here picking on me. Come and do something about it.'

Dr. COCROFT: Well, I didn't either. In fact, these studies of treehoppers
are really the first time we've had a detailed look at any insects for
communication between the parents and offspring.

CHADWICK: We set off through a lower field, sweeping the stem tops before us
with butterfly nets, collecting the small creatures in the waist-high brush;
treehoppers among them. They are small pea-size.

Dr. COCROFT: They're beautiful looking, at least, very strange-looking
animals. And what really, I think, enchants me about treehoppers is that not
only do they turn out to have these really fascinating communication systems
that are fascinating from an intellectual standpoint, but their calls are
just so abundantly wonderful that you can't help liking an animal that
provides you with this incredible lifelong entertainment of going out in the
field and recording unheard sound after unheard sound.

CHADWICK: Barns, fields, dogs, even the Cocroft stone house, 200 years old.
It's ordinary enough for Virginia. An ordinary yard and ordinary bugs with
idle uninteresting lives, I had thought. I was wrong. They are full of
mystery and romance and drama.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: The insects stopped calling after dark. I left Leesburg, not
expecting to see Rex Cocroft again for a while, and I was wrong about that,

CONAN: Both Alex Chadwick and Dr. Cocroft were about to learn that the world
of insect sounds was even richer than they'd thought.

CHADWICK: Here's some insects you'll like. These were recorded by Dr. Randy
Hunt at the University of Indiana-Southeast. They're arithranera aclas(ph),
but in the notes he sent, he identified them as The Three Stooges Bugs(ph).

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: He didn't say anything about this next group. I think of them as
Stooges fans.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: More like Stooges cult worshipers, huh?

(Soundbite of dog barking)

CHADWICK: A couple of days after we first recorded Rex Cocroft's
treehoppers, he called to invite us back to his place. He said he'd been
trying out some equipment that NPR engineers had made for him, just walking
around, randomly clipping these special microphones onto bushes and stems.

Dr. COCROFT: I was very surprised. In fact, I was completely enchanted with
them as when I just first got into this and first heard sounds.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: Scientists don't do this often enough, none of us does, wander
around outside with no purpose. Rex usually spends all day in a lab with his
insects, where it's much easier to see exactly what he's studying.

(Soundbite of insects; piano music)

CHADWICK: How does a scientist begin to listen to insects, trying to
understand the world through what they have to say? Dr. Cocroft didn't begin
as a scientist at all. He studied piano at college, and for a while he
thought about life as a musician.

(Soundbite of Cocroft playing the piano)

CHADWICK: That's Rex playing Chopin. But eventually he was drawn back to an
earlier interest in biology. He went to graduate school in the natural
sciences. He never lost his ear, though. He just learned new things.

(Soundbite of piano music; insects)

Dr. COCROFT: I used to be able to swat flies, until I took a course in
insect morphology and studied all the little pieces of the skeleton to which
muscles attached involved in flight and in controlling the angle of the
wings. And after that, I'd look at a fly and, 'God, that's amazing.' You
know, it was kind of hard to understand how it all worked. Once you figured
it out, you know, it'd be like swatting something...

CHADWICK: Destroying the "Mona Lisa."

Dr. COCROFT: Yeah.

CHADWICK: Ants were too fast and nervous to study, unsuited to his own
disposition. Treehoppers were more interesting communicators and more
contemplative. He might have studied mammals or birds or fish, but he likes
how insects, so alien, allow for imagination.

Dr. COCROFT: A lot of the insights about what's important in this is it
comes from just sitting there and watching them with your mind kind of a
blank slate, just simply sitting and watching without necessarily thinking
about life. But once you kind of start to put yourself in the animal's
world, you begin to get a lot of ideas you might have missed otherwise. So
there is also a very useful purpose to this act of kind of putting yourself
in the animal's shoes, if you will.

(Soundbite of insects)

CHADWICK: He is leaving Virginia and Cornell and the State University of New
York at Binghamton, where he's been. He's taken a new position teaching and
researching at the University of Missouri. He's writing a little for science
magazines. He's got the cover on the most recent Natural History magazine, a
story about insect sound. His plans are to go to the tropics and study
treehopper communication. And probably now, on some afternoons, he'll just
wander around, listening to the kinds of things you can find pretty much
anywhere, even in a back yard.

(Soundbite of leafhopper)

CHADWICK: That's agramanelon niger(ph) frogs, a leafhopper in lawns all over
the Eastern US.

(Soundbite of treehopper)

CHADWICK: Enchenopa binotata, a treehopper partial to red bud trees.

(Soundbite of treehopper)

CHADWICK: And that is vandusia arquatta(ph), one of Rex Cocroft's
treehoppers, a small brown creature the size of a pea and with a voice you
could never imagine.

Dr. COCROFT: It's actually really strange because we're playing these sounds
out into this little quiet part of the Virginia countryside in a way that
begins to almost give you an idea of what our environments would sound like
if somehow we were able to perceive all these signals traveling through
plants. And this is just one plant. So if we somehow had all the plants in
our environment wired up and were playing it, then we'd be hearing this
incredible cacophony of strange sounds. And, you know, experience of just
walking out and taking a walk out on the lane...


Dr. COCROFT: ...or walking through a meadow would be completely different.

(Soundbite of insect)

CHADWICK: For Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

CONAN: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National
Geographic Society. That one was produced by Carolyn Jensen with technical
director Chuck Thompson. And thanks also to NPR engineers Dennis Byrnes, Bob
Butcher, Terry Knight and Dr. Randy Hunt of Indiana University.

More information about the Percy-L mailing list