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SONG OF THE CANARY / Lewis Thomas OTHER CREATURES, most conspicuously from our point of view the social insects, live together in dense communities in such interdependence that it is hard to imagine the existence of anything like an individual. They are arranged in swarms by various genetic manipulations, they emerge in foreordained castles, some serving as soldiers for defending the anthill or beehive, some as workers, bringing in twigs of exactly the right size needed for whatever the stage of construction of the nest, some as the foodgatherers tugging along the dead moth toward the hill, some solely as reproductive units for the replication of the community, even some specialized for ventilating and cleaning the nest and disposing of the dead. Automatons, we call them, tiny genetic machines with no options for behavior, doing precisely what their genes instruct them to do, generation after mindless generation. They communicate with each other by chemical signals, unambiguous molecules left behind on the trail to signify all sorts of news items of interest to insects: the dead moth is on the other side of the hill behind this rock, the intruders are approaching from that direction, the queen is upstairs and asking after you, that sort of news. Bees, the earliest and greatest of all geometricians, dance in darkness to tell where the sun is and where it will be in exactly twenty minutes. We, of course, are different. We make up our minds about the world as individuals, we look around at the world and plan our next move, we remember what happened last week when we made a mistake and got in trouble, and we keep records for longer memories, even several generations back. Also we possess what we call consciousness, awareness which most of us regard as a uniquely human gift: we can even think ahead to dying, and we cannot imagine an insect, much less a wolf or a dolphin or even a whale, doing that. So, we are different. And marvelously higher. Nonetheless, we are a social species. We gather in communities far denser and more complex than any termite nest or beehive, and we depend much more on each other for individual survival than any troop of army ants. We are compulsively, biologically, obsessively social. And we are the way we are because of language. The Missouri Review · 9 Of all the acts of cooperative behavior to be observed anywhere in nature, I can think' of nothing to match—for the free exchange of assets and the achievement of equity and balance in the trade— human language. When we speak to each other, it is not like the social insects laying out chemical trails, it contains the two most characteristic and accommodating of all human traits, ambiguity and amiability. Almost every message in human communication can be taken in two or more ways. There are choices to be made all over the place, in the sending of messages and in their reception. We are, in this respect, unlike the ants and bees. We are obliged to listen more carefully, to edit whatever we hear, and to recognize uncertainty when we hear it, or read it. Another difference is that the communication systems of animals much older than our species are fixed in place and unchangeable. Our system, language, is just at its beginning, only a few thousand years old, still experimental and flexible. We can change it whenever we feel like, and have been doing so right along. How many of us can speak Chaucerian English or Anglosaxon, or Indoeuropean, or Hittite? Or read them? But it is still a genetically determined gift, no doubt about it. We speak, and write, and listen, because we have genes for language. Without such genes, we might still be the smartest creatures on the block, able to make tools and outthink any other animal in combat, even able to think and plan ahead, but we would not be human. It is not clear whether the gift of language turned up because of a mutation, suddenly transforming us from one kind of species into a distinctly different creature by the installation of brand new centers for language, or whether you get...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 9-23
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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