A soprano’s aria or a visionary’s speech, a baby’s fierce wail or a lover’s whispered poem: To human ears, our species’s vocal communication may sound more complex than any other animal’s. Two new books, both from the same publisher, challenge that conceit. Holly Menino in “Calls Beyond Our Hearing” and Andrew R. Halloran in “The Song of the Ape” describe other creatures’ calls and songs in ways that ensure the noisy animal world will never again sound the same.
Journalist Menino invites her readers on a world tour of cutting-edge vocal communication studies. Frogs in Panama, songbirds in Puerto Rico, meerkats in South Africa and beluga whales in Canada are among the animals whose voices she hears on her visits to working scientists in the field. With her literate and lively style, she makes her book a scientific page-turner.
To find out how animals use their voices and why is Menino’s goal. Most of the scientists’ conservative conclusions surprise her at first. “Language is one of the terms forbidden to behavioral ecologists, who deal with communication in terms of signals,” she writes, “and even the word meaning will make most of them uncomfortable.”
It may not be language, yet I think meaning is exactly what many of these animals convey. The South African meerkats (stars of the television show “Meerkat Manor”) live in tight-knit families that are vulnerable to predators. Through a highly specific signal, which Menino describes as a “small cry,” meerkat alarm-callers tell others how to respond to a jackal’s threat vs. an eagle’s and convey the urgency of the threat. The meerkats thus “can do something only humans were thought capable of, use a vocal utterance both to refer to something and to convey emotion.” It’s possible to avoid anthropomorphism and still conclude that calls of this sort transmit meaning.
Meaning-making, though, isn’t necessarily language. Cetacean scientists in Canada remark that they can understand the vocal systems of beluga whales only by taking the animals’ cognition into account. But when Menino asks if the belugas are “doing something like comprehending language,” one scientist tells her flatly: “Nope. Not like language. You don’t even need to go there.”
In “Song of the Ape,” Halloran, a primatologist, does go there. “I . . . feel confident,” he asserts, “in granting language to chimpanzees.” Years ago he began work at the Lion Country Safari in South Florida’s Everglades, where 35 chimpanzees live in groups on four islands. At this animal park, caretakers maneuver between islands by boat; one day Halloran failed to secure his boat correctly. Male chimpanzee Higgy and four of his allies seized the craft and escaped from their island. With great effort on Halloran’s part, order was restored, but the incident had “a profound effect” on him. “I kept thinking of how planned and orchestrated the escape seemed to be,” he notes.
Halloran came to know Higgy’s group of chimpanzees well and describes their individual personalities and social dynamics with flair. In his research, he recorded the apes’ calls — which range from low-pitched yelps and “raspberry” sounds to excited barks and intense screams — and compared their bio-acoustical profiles with the behavioral contexts in which they were given. The result was a phrase book, a sort of cross-species “Rosetta stone” that lets us understand the chimpanzees’ communication.
Some translations are straightforward, as in “Come here” (used by dominants to summon lower-ranking apes) or “I found food.” Others seem to involve considerable interpretation on Halloran’s part. When mothers reassure their juveniles, are they saying “Everything is going to get better”? When leader Higgy communicates positively with other apes, is he saying “I’m happy with you”? Although many of Halloran’s ideas in this section of the book are plausible, they — like some of the newer hypotheses offered by Menino’s scientists — await peer review.
Unfortunately, Halloran makes some serious missteps in the sections that go beyond his own research. Flat assertions that “a human is born with an innate sense of grammar” or that a chimpanzee is “as intelligent as a human” oversimplify issues hotly debated in science. Published work in primatology contradicts his declaration that primate “alarm calls require no socialization or learning to be unlocked.” Halloran’s antipathy for the “antics” of apes that use sign language — a “circus trick” to him — is extreme, given that apes such as Washoe the chimpanzee signed not just for food rewards but quite creatively at times.
Too often, Halloran’s sentences are unwieldy. “Each individual,” he writes, “is given a set of parameters, given to us by circumstance, and, like a carpenter who receives a set amount of materials, each individual is forced to create his or her own world out of what is given.” A gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo, he notes, “was soon to give birth to a sign language-using gorilla who would become a media sensation.” (An ape using sign language at birth would be news indeed.)
Of the two books, Menino’s is the more inviting, rigorous and balanced. From her global tour of animal-vocal studies, Menino concludes that “vocal sound is a force in building . . . relationships and in locating and drawing together families. It is an instrument of engagement.” In engaging others with our voices in complex ways, we humans have much company in the animal world.
CALLS BEYOND OUR HEARING
Unlocking the Secrets
of Animal Hearing
By Holly Menino
St. Martin’s. 260 pp. $25.99
THE SONG OF THE APE
Understanding the Language
By Andrew R. Halloran
St. Martin’s. 276 pp. $25.99