Animal cultures, communication, and signs

6 minute read

I have been reading an interesting article from 2002 by Dominique Lestel, considering the definition of culture and its applicability to animals. The focus is on communications through signs (i.e., semiotics). From the abstract:

The question of animal cultures has once again become a subject of debate in ethology, and is now one of its most active and problematic areas. One surprising feature of this research, however, is the lack of attention paid to the communications that go in in these complex animal societies, with the exception of mechanisms of social learning. This neglect of communications is all the more troubling because many ethologists are unwilling to acknowledge that animals have cultures precisely because they do not possess language, a refusal therefore on semiotic grounds. In the present article, I show that the biosemiotic approach to animal cultures is, on the contrary, essential to their understanding, even if the complexity of animal communications is far from being well enough understood....

The paper starts with a fair review of evidences of "cultures" in animal species, including primates, birds, and cetaceans, and notes that these are often diagnosed by the existence of intergroup variability, deceit, or -- in the case of communication -- apparent syntactic structure or referential content.

One problem studying communication is this:

It is hard to investigate the differences and similarities between animal communications and language from the simple standpoint of continuity or discontinuity. It is not trivial to find a feature of human language which is not found to some degree in the communications of at least one animal species, even though language remains the only system of communication which possesses all of these features at once (Snowden 1999). Yet this kind of comparison is not really satisfying, as it takes language too exclusively as the standard for all other semiotic systems. Language and animal communications differ in a host of significant ways, some of which are altogether unexpected, such as the physical duration of the vocal expressions in animals. Birds rarely sing sequences lasting longer than 15 seconds. And these are rare. Most birds do not exceed six seconds, and the average hovers around three seconds, as in most parrots. Only humans and humpbacked whales have non-repeated sequences which last longer (Hartshorne 1973).

The "productivity" of human language is often considered to set it apart from animal communications -- language can be used to express an arbitrary range of concepts and these can be combined into arbitrarily long utterances. Animal vocal communication starts out with a huge handicap in this regard, since it is strictly limited to very short utterances.

The bee prophecies

I couldn't resist that heading after reading this passage:

Haldane (1953), far from immediately focusing on the differences and similarities between the "language" of bees and human language, asked himself what distinguishes and what links an action and a communication. In the hive, bees undeniably make movements which elicit responses in other bees; but the first are not necessarily communicating information about the new food source. Some of these movements can be regarded as ways of expressing the next action. Haldane came to the logical conclusion that the distinction between communication and action is not as clear as it had seemed. Not only can animals express movements indicating intention, they can also reply to them. The more ritualized the movements, the easier it is to reply. Haldane therefore suggested that, rather than being the communication of a message, the bee dance was a highly ritualized movement of intention which took place before leaving the hive and which caused any other bee to leave in a like manner. The honey-bee's dance can thus be interpreted as the prediction of its future movements ratehr than the description of its past movements. Haldane considered that the bee dances were interesting because of their "temporal ambiguity", which makes them both prophecies and stories (Lestel 2002:45-46).

I find this idea interesting for two reasons. First, it seems applicable to some of the ritualized communications in primates, such as threat displays. Clearly these are not "accounts" of past or present irritation, they are iconic predictions of near-term aggression. They use characteristic facial expressions, movements, and vocalizations, and the intensity and duration of these elements roughly predicts the likelihood that aggression will follow. But to a much greater extent than the bees, other primate individuals can respond to threat displays and possibly avert violence through their own submissive or reconciliatory actions.

Second, it suggests an alternative for a hypothesis I've never much liked -- the hypothesis that archaic humans didn't have a concept of the future. Upper Paleolithic Europeans made storage pits for food, they exploited seasonal food sources like salmon runs and reindeer migrations, and they traded and curated objects across long distances. All these things suggest that they could think in ways that enabled planning for different future conditions. Earlier humans did not do these things, leading to the hypothesis that they were incapable of this kind of planning. The idea of planning has also been carried over to raw material utilization, which becomes more intensive and standardized in later people. So some have suggested that Neandertals and other archaic humans did not have a clear conception of the future, or an ability to plan their pattern of activities to deal with seasonal fluctuations and longer-term changes.

But the animal communication analogy indicates that at least short-term future actions are accessible not only to the individual, but are potentially communicated to others as well. One might even say there is no purpose to communication if the probabilities of future events were not to some extent incorporated in it. Organisms communicate in order to increase their own fitness by altering the behavior of others. Nonlinguistic communications take on the flavor of a poker game, in which successive acts may increase or reduce the likelihood of certain outcomes.

The act of communication itself implies a prediction of the future -- and that is in the absence of language. Linguistic communication gives an even greater potential for creating a real conception of the present and the past -- conditions distant in space and time from the individual may be made known through language.

It would seem that behavior must be to some extent ritualized to serve as a sign, so that it can be recognized as bearing intentional meaning. Even so, one need not be all that precise -- and perhaps the exaggerated form of many threat displays is a way of ensuring the proper interpretation even with a lot of noise in the reception system.

Two questions can be posed at this stage. First, would human societies have developed in the same way in a space without animals?

I would expand this question to consider not only domesticated or semi-domesticated animals like dogs, but also wild animals -- building off the fact that early humans had to read the signs and thereby understand and predict the behavior of wild animals in order to eat. There has long been a strain of prehistoric archaeology that has examined the fact that many hunter-gatherers conceptualize animal behavior in explicitly cultural terms. Thus, they conceive of animal "obligations" and "gifts", and

And second, what place do human societies assign animals in their organizations? This is one of the major questions glossed over in our approach to human societies. With the rise of biotechnologies and the heated discussions on animal rights, on the legitimacy of industrial farming and on protecting biodiversity, these have become burning questions (Lestel 2002:62).

This appears to be more sympathetic than I am to the idea that the cognitive adaptations of some animals should merit special "rights" of some kind. But certainly that movement has arisen within the context of a human society that increasingly incorporates animals into intimate social groups.


Lestel D. 2002. The biosemiotics and phylogenesis of culture. Soc Sci Information 41:35-68. Abstract