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The Difference between Animal and Human Language

In the minds of many today there is nothing particularly unique about humans. We are just animals. Christine Kenneally appeals to hard scientific fact as demonstrating that our supposedly unique qualities are only more sophisticated versions of traits found in the animal world. She describes the human capacity for language as “the last stronghold of human [...]

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In the minds of many today there is nothing particularly unique about humans. We are just animals. Christine Kenneally appeals to hard scientific fact as demonstrating that our supposedly unique qualities are only more sophisticated versions of traits found in the animal world. She describes the human capacity for language as “the last stronghold of human uniqueness” and contends that this too has fallen.

She insists that there are non-human animals that feel emotions, empathise with others, abide by moral codes, have personalities and cultures, and possess the ability to design and use tools. Then, rather than treating language as a monolithic whole she follows modern scientists in viewing it as a suite of abilities. See then this way none of the component parts are as unique as the totality.

For example, gesture is no longer considered to be uniquely human. Evidently ape gestures can involve touch, vocalising or eye movement. Individual apes wait till they have another ape’s attention before making visual or auditory gestures. If these are not acknowledge they repeat them or touch the other. Further, orang-utans, for example, have demonstrated that such gestures are not merely innate reflexes but are actually learned and used in a flexible manner indicating voluntary control. Indeed, researchers claim that apes use similar gestures to human babies.

Other researchers claim that baby dolphins babble like pre-linguistic human babies as they, like human babies, practise the sounds of their species. Mature dolphins have been observed to make “signature whistles” which have been interpreted as constituting self-identification communication. Rebecca Dunlop from the University of Queensland has catalogues 34 different humpback whale social sounds that have remained stable over the years. At Edinburgh Zoo researchers claim that chimps make distinctions in the way they vocalise sounds about particular foods and that the meaning of these sounds is understood by other chimps. So when recordings of particular grunts were played back the chimps looked in the place where the corresponding food was usually found. Studies of Siberian jays indicate their alarm calls not only identify hawks but also whether the hawks are sitting, hunting or attacking. It is claimed that Campbell monkeys in the Tai Forest of Ivory Coast even use a rudimentary syntax when they sound forth their alarm calls, using combination cries in which the alarm call is preceded by a boom sounding indicating whether the threat is real or possible. To these evidences are added the stories of remarkable animals that have learned the meaning of hundreds of human words and even basic sentences.

Kenneally acknowledges that human speech remains remarkable, yet concludes “it is a far more graded, qualified kind of special than it used to be.”

There is nothing here to disconcert the believer or to make us think of ourselves as nothing but highly sophisticated animals. There is nothing to be feared from intensively studying animals and marveling at the remarkable abilities with which our Creator has invested them. However, those who use these findings to blur the distinction between humans and animals are making a grave error of monumental proportions. They are in fact dehumanising humans because, as I have said in previous blogs, the unique worth and dignity of humans, in contrast to all other creatures, consists in the fact that God uniquely made us in his image and to bear his likeness. Take this away and you and I are but animals. Our own highly sophisticated linguistic abilities have been given to us by our Creator so that we might use our mouths to tell of his greatness. The glory of God and the glory of people go hand in hand. Honour God and you honour people. Dishonour God and, inevitably, you dishonour people. Let’s demonstrate that human language is not animal language by the way we use to it to enrich our relationship with God and others.

Reference: “So you think you’re unique” in New Scientist (24 May, 2008) 29-34

Posted June 28, 2008

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