Review from:

Secret Language

The Secret Language of Life: How Animals and Plants Feel and Communicate

By Brian J. Ford

Fromm, 320pp, cloth, $30.

from The Secret Language of Life:

The first ape to be taught American sign language was a chimpanzee named Washoe which was raised by Alan and Beatrice Gardner at the University of Nevada in the late 1960s. She arrived in North American when only a few weeks old, and has spent all her adult life in the company of humans. To help her start, the trainers would take her hand in theirs and gently form it into the signs they were using at the time. As a result, she became adept at using sign language to communicate and understood her human keepers well. In her first four years Washoe learned to use 130 signs, each representing a word or short phrase. She responded appropriately to objects or images. On one occasion, when she saw a swan for the first time in her life, she is reported to have signed "water bird" to the Gardners. Washoe was also seen to sign to herself in quiet moments while relaxing in her enclosure.

At Kyoto University, Japan, a 21-year-old chimpanzee named Ai has also been taught to communicate using signals and signs. In 1998 she was reported to be pregnant (the birth being due in August 1998). Special attention is going to be paid to what she teaches her young. Since she now uses sign language as a convenient means to communicate with people, researchers are excited by the possibility that she may teach her young this human way of communicating.

The University of Pennsylvania has an ape which was taught to reply with coloured tokens made of plastic. She could answer questions like "What colour is . . .?" responding correctly whatever the shape of the token, even if the colour of the token were quite different from the colour of the object it represented. At Emory University, two chimpanzees were taught to use a keyboard to communicate. They were soon able to answer simple questions put to them in the same encoded language. Two of the males not only learned to communicate with each other using the system, but could actually ask each other for objects using the keyboard.

* * *

Pitched for laypersons and covering a lot of anecdotal and observational ground in some but not great detail, The Secret Language of Life illustrates British biologist Brian J. Ford's contention that humans need to stop seeing themselves as superior organisms and appreciate humanity as one of many complicated feeling and thinking organisms on this planet. In addition to capsule discussions of the Great Apes--animals closest to humans--Ford offers a widesweeping view of the plant and animal world. He discusses the sensory world of animals, with implications that suggest animals feel not just instinctively but also emotionally, and act not just intuitively but intelligently. There's the octopus, which can sense tastes a hundred times more diluted than humans can perceive; tadpoles whose preference for colors continue even when not associated with survival mechanisms; baby monkeys stimulated not by a Pavlovian sight of food or sense of warmth, but by a visual and motorized representation of the mother monkey; facial movements of chimpanzees that communicate body language; body movements of gulls that suggest specific communications within the species; mating expressions in sequence of ducks that suggest not just pattern but choice; ants that have ten times more jobs in the colony than there are types of ant, which suggests an adaptability and ability to learn and adjust, rather than a simple caste system; and even fungi, with the beginnings of an actual eye, or microbes with their "eye spots."

Ford covers a lot of ground here, and, as a result, the discussion can by turns feel rich and also a bit thin. And while some of his subhead questions (Do animals feel pain? Do insects communicate?) seem primer--even to a non-biologist who has watched a dog whine and hop along with a limp leg or ants return en masse for a feast of crumbs a day after discovery--there's still plenty of fascinating material here. "Normally," Ford writes, "it is only the physiological results in animals which we measure in science." In The Secret Language of Life, he tries to go beyond the notion of conditioned responses and instincts to speculate on real intelligence levels and levels of emotion and communication. The title is slightly misleading, because no real "secret" of life is explained. But animal rights activists will welcome this book and hope that every human being reads it, because it points toward what Ford calls "a new sense of humanitarianism" that he suggests is called for, given the presence of intelligence and emotion and communication systems in not just humankind, but in even the lowliest life form.


Reviewed by James Plath

Go to the book's American web site, or the T-Books page.

See the original review in Times Literary Supplement.
Also: Booknews, Publisher's Weekly, Internet Book Watch, Library Journal.