Tuesday, July 10, 2018

By Claw, By Hand, By Silent Speech, by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry and A. Merc Rustad

★★☆☆☆ Not Recommended

(SF Adventure) The Owen corporation has brought some dinosaurs through their “gate,” and Dr. Crimshaw thinks she can use sign language to communicate with one of them. (4,425 words; Time: 14m)

"," by and (edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas), appeared in issue 23, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: Dr. Crimshaw’s efforts pay off, and she and Sharp Claw both find companionship.

Con: The story presents itself as hard SF, but I found the science unbelievable. (I have a masters degree in linguistics.) In reality, Dr. Crimshaw would simply have gotten eaten. That aside, her background was paleontology, not linguistics or teaching. So even if the organization wanted to try to teach velociraptors how to sign, they wouldn’t have asked her to do it. Attempts to do this with other animals have been so uniformly unsuccessful that it’s impossible to believe anyone would have allowed her to try it at all, though.

Animals have communication, but not language. They have a limited “vocabulary” of symbols (signals), and rarely (if ever) use more than three symbolsto make a “sentence.” They cannot create new symbols nor change the meanings of existing ones. Our ability to create astonishingly long complex and novel sentences is an ability that characterizes us just as much as elephants are characterized by their amazingly long, flexible trunk.

When researchers have tried to teach language to animals, the result has always been that they trained the animals to produce certain symbols in exchange for treats, but then the animals never used those symbols with each other nor even with humans except when prompted. Some learned as many as 1,000 symbols, but, again, only to get treats; never for communication.

Apparent successes have either been irreproducible or else frauds. For example, Koko the Gorilla and Kanzi the Bonobo were, if not outright frauds, sad examples of self-deceived researchers seeing only what they wanted to see. Sadly, the myth that it's possible to teach animals a language so we can communicate with them persists because it's it's a beautiful dream that so many people really want to believe, and it's very hard to let go of.

For those interested in our state of understanding of animal communication and cognition, I highly recommend “Are Dolphins Really Smart?: The mammal behind the myth,” by Justin Gregg, which is very approachable by a lay reader, and, despite the title, discusses a wide range of animals, not just dolphins.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 23)
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline
A. Merc Rustad Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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