Many times I have had (sometimes heated) discussions with family members who claim that there is no essential difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom – that we are just slightly more ‘developed’ than they are, but there is no real gulf between the two groups. One of the areas in which I try to draw attention to in order to highlight what I believe to be a real, qualitative difference between us and other animals, is our use of language (as opposed to communication). The usual response I get to this is that ‘maybe they (the other animals) do have language, but we just don’t know about it yet.’
My response to that is usually something along the lines of ‘well, if they had language, I’m pretty sure that they would be able to tell us about it’ – and it is at this point that the discussion usually devolves into misunderstanding and short-temperedness. The point I will try to make here though, is that language involves the use of referents, of signs, which enable us to transcend the signal-and-response communication methods through which other animals transfer information and learn things. To try and make this clearer, I shall use some passages from Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, where he spends a chapter discussing human usage of semiotics, and how it is that this distinguishes us from other animals:
‘Many people, including some scientists, like to speak of the “language” of the Rumbaugh’s chimp, Skinner’s pigeons, and the Purdue parrot, to say nothing of the song of the humpback whale. These communications, however, bear little is any resemblance to human language. The former can be understood as dyadic events not qualitatively different, albeit much more complex, from other dyadic events in the Cosmos. The latter cannot be so understood…
…Triadic behaviour is that event in which sign A is understood by organism B, not as a signal to flee or approach, but as “meaning” or referring to another perceived segment of the environment. This triad is irreducible. That is to say, it cannot be understood as a sequence of dyads, as could the events say, when Miss Sullivan spelled C-A-K-E into Helen’s hand and Helen went to look for cake – like one of Skinner’s pigeons.’
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1984), pp.94-95, Arena.
What Percy means by dyadic events here is a simple, linear interaction between an organism and a signal from its environment. Such interactions can be multiplied and concatenated to the point where an organism is receiving or sending quite complex sets of signals from/to its environment (including other organisms), but the essential nature of the individual interactions does not raise above this level. What he means by triadic (and the irreducible triad) is the relationship between subject, signifier and a third category, the referent.
For example, with regard to the example given of ‘Helen’ mentioned above (this is Helen Keller, the American author and political activist who was born both deaf and blind), when the letters of the word ‘cake’ are spelt into her hand this is simply a signal given that is known to indicate a certain activity or action. A similar episode took place between Helen and Mrs Sullivan at a later date, with one important difference:
‘As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “w-a-t-e-r” several times…
…All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she added thirty new words to her vocabulary.’
In this instance, Helen had learned that the water rushing over her hand somehow is the word ‘water’ – a mysterious connection had been made between the signifier and the referent, and a whole world of meaning had entered Helen’s world, and she had moved from the world of communication into the world of language. Walker Percy elaborates later in the chapter:
‘The world of the sign-user is a world of signs. The sign, as Saussure said, is a union of signifier (the sound image of a word) and signified (the concept of an object, action, quality). If you protest that your world does not consist of signs but rather of apples and trees and people and stars and walking and yellow, Saussure might reply that you don’t know any of these things but only a sensory input which your brain encodes as a percept, then abstracts as a concept which is in turn encoded and “known” under the auspices of language…
…If you do not believe that the word apple has been transformed by the percept apple, do this experiment: repeat the word apple fifty times. Somewhere along the way, it will suddenly lose its magic transformation into appleness and like Cinderella at midnight become the drab little vocable it really is.’
Percy provides further illustrative detail by pointing out the fact that cats (for example) have no myths, tell no stories to one another about the world – they simply signal to one another, and their world is not invested with meaning. We humans on the other hand, although still responsive to and dependent upon the various signals that we receive and send out, impose a world of meaning upon the universe.
It is this investment of our environment with meaning, the sense of transcendence of the mundane, that characterises our language and sets us apart from other animals. By referring to this third category, or sign, we can ‘name’ things (c.f.; Genesis 2:19-20), and also learn the languages of other groups who have given different names to the same objects. Hence my argument that, if other animals had language, they could tell us – they could point us to their signs, and we could point them to ours, and we could learn each other’s languages. This is however, manifestly not the case – we are irreducibly different in this respect.
Another thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is creativity, or more specifically, art. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton draws attention to this unique aspect of prehistoric man’s (and by implication all human) life, the significance of which is seldom noticed by secular commentators:
‘When all is said, the main fact that the record of the reindeer men attests, along with all other records, is that the reindeer man could draw and the reindeer could not. If the reindeer man was as much an animal as the reindeer, it was all the more extraordinary that he could do what all other animals could not. If he was an ordinary product of biological growth, like any other beast or bird, then it is all the more extraordinary that he was not in the least like any other beast or bird. He seems rather more supernatural as a natural product than as a supernatural one.’
The Everlasting Man (2010), pp.18-19, Martino Publishing.
Pre-empting arguments which would try to account for this massive difference by drawing a line of progression from the lower animals to the higher, finally culminating in man, Chesterton points out that not only does this ignore the astounding difference in kind between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, but that, anthropologically speaking, there is zero evidence of such a progression taking place:
‘It is useless to begin by saying that everything was slow and smooth and a mere matter of development and degree. For in the plain matter like the pictures there is in fact not a trace of any such development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well…
…All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature. In other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone.’
This gulf between humanity and other animal species has its parallel in physiological developments as well, in that evolutionary biologists have struggled to account for the huge difference in complexity between human brains and higher primates – a difference which doesn’t seem to have had any discernable evolutionary advantages, even when seen as developing incrementally. This phenomenon is known as hypertrophy – a word that, when applied here, falls into the category of terms that are used to make it sound like a certain phenomenon fits into our current philosophical paradigm, when really it doesn’t and we don’t know why (Marilynne Robinson has some interesting things to say about this in relation to modern scientism here) – and supplements the historical account given by Chesterton of man’s distinctiveness and strangeness when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.
In summary then, one can see that humans, in these two respects of art and language, are quite distinct from other animals, and come across as something astounding and unique in the world – as Chesterton says, ‘a thing standing absolute and alone’. What is even more remarkable, from the Christian point of view, which already accepts the exceptional character of mankind, is that these two facets of our character also bear an incredible witness to the divine authorship of our nature. Firstly, God’s creation of the world was itself the prime act of creativity, and God, in His continuing act of creation, is the first and ultimate artist, from and in whom all other acts of creativity find their source.
Furthermore, in creating the world, He spoke all things in to existence – ‘In the beginning was the word…’ (John 1:1); ‘And God said, “Let there be light”…’ (Genesis 1:3). This Word of God was not just spoken once, but is the logos, the divine reason that is the basis of all structure and meaning in the universe, and without which we would not be able to ‘refer’ or ‘signify’ at all. All our language finds its root in this original and unending act of divine speech by which God brings His creation into being and invests it with the significance that humans alone are able to apprehend.
Truly then, in our ability to use language and to create works of art, we are given a small glimpse into part of what it means when we say we are created in the image and likeness of God, and a reminder of our special place in His plans for the redemption of all creation (c.f.; Romans 8:19-22). Only by conforming our wills to that of the One who both created and redeemed us, can we become the stewards and redeemers of the creation He has placed under our care. We are special, but we were made so for a reason – for, whatever Saint Paul meant in Romans 8, creation can only be redeemed through the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’. This liberty is a liberty of love, which alone can enable us to fulfil the Law, and can alone restore to fullness the divine image in us that is at present only imperfectly reflected.