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Adam's Task: CALLING ANIMALS BY NAMEby Vicki Hearne; (Knopf: $17.95; 266 pp.)

July 27, 1986|Thomas A. Sebeok | Sebeok is co-author of "How Animals Communicate" and "Speaking of Apes."

For openers, here is a little quiz. Which of the following three propositions is true, which false:

1) Some animals can communicate.

2) Some animals have language, and they can speak it.

3) Some animals, although they cannot speak it, do have language.

If you guessed that Proposition 1 is true, you were right, and by a wide margin, for not just some, but all animals can communicate; that is, all can process incoming and outgoing messages. So can all living creatures, not excluding fungi and plants and such living entities as the component parts of animals' bodies, notably their cells.

In sum, communication (or, to use a more technical expression, semiosis) may be a part and parcel of the definition of life itself. Even some man-made objects, notably robots and, of course, computers, can be programmed to communicate.

Proposition 2 likewise is true but in a far more restricted sense: All available evidence shows that solely the creature taxonomists call Homo sapiens --you and I, in short--is language-endowed, and, moreover, capable of manifesting its language in linear speech. The truth of this proposition has not always convinced all explorers. In 1916, for instance, William H. Furness III of Philadelphia valiantly tried, but dismally failed, to teach an orangutan to talk, and, even as recently as the 1950s, Keither and Cathy Hayes of Florida lavished six fruitless years trying to coax a chimp to speak English. Today, no responsible scientist believes that animals can be taught (like the monkeys and apes in the late Bernard Malamud's final novel, "God's Grace") to speak even one of mankind's thousands of languages.

It is Proposition 3 that seems most troublesome. To be sure, there are many members of our own species who are language-endowed yet are for one reason or another unfit to speak. Such speechless, or mute, men and women are customarily, and for that very reason, labeled "handicapped."

But what about the nonhuman animals? Most assuredly none of them--neither dolphins nor seals nor chimps nor gorillas nor orangutans, celebrated captives all of them about whose allegedly uncanny powers the media have made so much noise over the last few decades--can utter so much as a single word. But are there any in whose nervous systems some arduous regime of laboratory training could instill a propensity for silent language?

The answer is: No. When this third proposition is restated as a testable scientific hypothesis, the answer must come unequivocally, if still provisionally, in the negative, for all the evidence gathered thus far has uncompromisingly confuted this proposition. Chimps cannot talk our language, and their own chimp-to-chimp communication is not properly called language either.

But Vicki Hearne is unimpressed by all this evidence.

Disingenuously she declares, musing about Washoe, the Ur -chimp in the succession of misfired attempts to train a speechless laboratory primate to communicate by linguistic means: "That doesn't mean she isn't talking."

It is this sort of picturesque, even cavalier, use of English prose that makes her book--a collection of essays (several previously published) loosely organized around the core theme of two-way communication between animals (especially domestic) and humans--so irritating. Hearne is identified as a creative writer who trained wolves and several species of domestic animal before she joined the Yale English faculty.

As her cited exclamation indicates--or more rightly, as it conceals--she simply redefines "talking" to suit her immediate purposes. As Hearne must know better than at least her more unseasoned readers would, Washoe's trainers never intended, even had this been feasible, that their chimp should learn to talk but hoped only that she might "sign," roughly in the manner of deaf people. This reviewer recalls being cautioned on a first visit to young Washoe in Reno not to address her vocally.

Furthermore, Hearne is quite wrong to say that Washoe and other chimps were "taught Ameslan," i.e., the American Sign Language of the deaf. The truth is that the so-called "signing apes" were drilled, at best, in but a minuscule number of Ameslan signs, simplified to the point of caricature, which had, moreover, a superimposed alien syntax (the syntax of English, which is not that of ASL, a complex, though unspoken, natural language of its own).

Hearne's title was inspired by one of John Hollander's poems bearing the same designation, and her book is meant, accordingly, to explain why the relationship between trainer and animal trainee is a "moral" one, a term that punctuates her discourse.

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