Konrad Lorenz and “The Language of Animals”

Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring is fantastic reading for students in seventh grade and above. Like Jean Henri Fabre, Lorenz is a disciple of nature and a son of Heraclitus when he says:

wisdom is to speak the truth and to act, according to nature, giving ear thereto.”

Lorenz surely does gives ear unto nature and his observations of animal behavior are very rewarding for anyone who wishes to understand animals better.

I think it is fascinating that every generation appears to have a debate about the nature of animals. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of animal behavior is their mode of communication. Making mistakes about the ability of animals to talk and speak has obvious catastrophic implications with regard to understanding our selves and our souls which are capable of grasping universals. Most famously in our own day we are confronted with Koko the talking gorilla. Or Kanzi the Bonobo and Kanzi’s son!

Hence the importance of reading natural scientists who understand the difference clearly and are able to articulate this to younger minds.

Lorenz quite simply responds:

“Animals do not have a language in the true sense of the word. In the higher vertebrates, as also in insects, particularly in the socially living species of both great groups, every individual has a certain number of innate movements and sounds for expressing feelings. It also has innate ways of reacting to those signals…” (King Solomon’s Ring, The Language of Animals)

He points out that they have a “transmitting and receiving apparatus” that in many case far surpasses that of man. By this he means that animals are able to transmit and receive, or rather they are able to ‘read’ and ‘communicate,’ emotions with an uncanny degree of precision. He gives many instances of animals which can read our emotions so well – emotions imperceptible to those around us- that it is very easy to mistake the animals reaction for a kind of intelligent and human-like communication.

Those who propose that Koko and Kanzi are actually speaking (albeit through sign language) do not appear to understand- among other things- the difference between the mere association of specific sounds or signs with a specific individual object (or person, or thing) and the use of words to communicate universals.

Perhaps Bertrand Russell said it best when he said:

“No matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor, but honest.”

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
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