Do animals have much to tell?

Human language seems as yet to be unequalled in the animal kingdom. Noam Chomsky (footnote 1) has drawn attention to the so-called syntax (sentence structure) as a tool that allows us to produce an infinite number of different sentences. The sentence 'John sees Peter' does not mean the same as 'Peter sees John' and subordinate clauses present the possibility to make our statements infinitely long and complex. This is not only important to communication but it also makes possible the typical human linguistic thinking and in this way could possibly be at the basis of much of our human culture.


One of the results of the now accepted focus on syntax is that this overshadows other forms of communication that only convey meaning. Such methods of communication are much older than human language and still play an important part in our own communication. Here we must think of: Non-verbal communication, as it manifests itself in a posture that a person assumes subconsciously or in subconscious signs of nervousness. But in forms of emotional expression as well, such as laughing, crying, frowning in wonder, screaming with excitement, turning red with anger or shame, etcetera. Although many emotional (and motivational) expressions take place spontaneously, people can use this system deliberately as well. They can decide to express their feelings and desires in an emotional way or rather to not do that, or even simulate inner stirrings that aren't there at all by emulating the expression of those feelings. Another system of communication that does not primarily rely upon verbal language, yet neither uses physical signs, is telepathic communication. In conclusion people still use basic utterances of language, such as a single cry or word, which people use to refer to something without arranging those utterances into a regular sentence. People can use this to symbolically refer to their own inner world but also to things or situations outside themselves.

Animals and communication

Non-syntactic communication is of course not restricted to the human species, but can in fact be found in the entire animal kingdom. It is important, by the way, to not define the term' communication' too vague or too widely. By animals who communicate we mean in this case creatures who share information with others on inner, subjective conditions (emotions, desires, observations, ideas, thoughts and such) or on thoughts or observations on the outside world (other animals, food, social order, relations and such). The word communication as such is therefore not applicable to robots, since it can be assumed that they do not know subjective states (footnote 2). So communication in animals in my definition presupposes that the animal has an inner world or consciousness (footnote 3). Communication in animals is in fact very interesting for everyone who is interested in what goes on inside an animal.

Non-verbal communication

Many forms of communication - meaning the exchange of information between individual animals - takes place without any awareness of the animal. This is similar to sensory perception which also relies largely on unconscious processing. There are many different types of social signals in the animal kingdom, but only a few of them can be considered communication according to the definition given in this article When, for example, a female chimpanzee is in estrus, she exhibits marked distensions on the lower part of her body that are meant to attract male chimpanzees. These changes are a clear sexual signal, but are assumed not to be (primarily) caused by the mental state of the animal. Something similar is true for the automatic release or certain chemicals, such as pheromones. For this reason such phenomena do not fall under communication as I have defined it here. Moreover there are of course all manner of expressions of emotions in the form of, among others, body posture facial expressions, set behavioral patterns and all types of sounds. Animal species have set expressions, movements and sounds at their disposal that are specific to that particular species and which they use to express certain inner emotions or motives. It is therefore out of the question that they invent those consciously, but those patterns are largely inborn and take place almost automatically. Obviously most animals can learn countless new patterns of behavior, but this does not diminish their natural repertoire of communicative utterances. The moment we assume animals have souls, we must acknowledge that the soul unconsciously stimulates the neuropsychological systems of emotional expression through a form of psychokinesis so that they bring about the adequate behavior. The systems in question can, by the way, be damaged, so that the connection between expression and emotion or motive disappears. There are cases of people in neurological literature, for example, who after having suffered brain damage had to cry uncontrollably all the time without there being any reason for this. Species-specific emotional expressions are necessary for survival and procreation of the members of the species, but also for the well-being of individual animals. If animals do not know how another animal feels or what it intends to do, it cannot adequately deal with the other individual. Animals who live solitary lives most of the time have to deal with others of their kind as well, even if merely in the form of a partner to mate with or in the form of offspring. There are inborn patterns of communicative expressions, poses and types of behavior for all types of social situations. It is true that animals have to learn variations when they are young. In this way, certain species of birds produce entire regional 'dialects' in their songs. There is only a very limited analogy with human dialects, because the words and sentences that humans produce are themselves never a part of an overall human pattern. Almost always (footnote 4) they are derived from originally meaningless, completely random sounds. We as humans are masters in decoding the non-verbal communication of other species. Like members of other species of mammals, young children are even capable of adopting expressive behavior of other species (for example dogs or wolves). In a more general sense, we have used our knowledge in this area during our history for the hunt or for taming farm animals. Over the last decades people have, thankfully, become more and more aware that animals can express their emotions and desires. Various myths surrounding the absence of an inner life in animals, or more specific of pain, fear, unease or boredom are relegated to the world of fantasy more and more often. Behavior is -unfortunately still to an insufficient level - interpreted in the light of animal well-being and animal ethics. In the Netherlands theoretical biologist Françoise Wemelsfelder (footnote 5) has become well-known for her research into signs of boredom in pigs in factory farming.

Control of non-verbal communication

People, just like animals, have an wide range of inborn non-verbal signals at their disposal. We weep, give cries, assume a threatening position, smile, look at someone with a piercing glance, our eyes fill with tears from emotion, and so on. There are even general facial expressions among humans for kindness, compassion and spiritual ecstasy, which shows again that our body is the product of more than physical evolution. People furthermore have the ability to bring their non-verbal communication largely under conscious control (footnote 6). This can be done by suppressing the expression of certain emotions, but it is much more common that several non-verbal facial expressions and gestures are consciously utilized in the total of communication. In this way we decide purposely to give others who need this a hug, a pat on the back, a kiss or a firm handshake. In these situations we are not forced to do this, but we make a conscious decision. Dogs and other tame animals such as seals are usually very well capable to control their vocalizations according to their boss' wishes. Members of higher species with a relatively large mental grasp, such as apes, understand that they can communicate non-verbally and use this understanding to show others their affection or anger, to support them emotionally and such. In a negative way they use their far-reaching grasp of their non-verbal communication to mislead other animals, something that, for example, has been studied in detail by Dutch ethnologist Frans de Waal (footnote 7). This phenomenon also occurs in baboons, according to observations made by Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne (footnote 8). Paul, an almost adult male, saw that Mel, an adult female, was digging up a juicy turnip Paul looked around and only saw his mother; there were no other baboons. Then he uttered a scream as if he was in danger. Paul's mother ran to the place in question and pushed away Mel (she thought that she was the attacker). After that, Paul started eating the turnip that had been left behind. Animals who can learn to control the greater part of their non-verbal communication show at least a partial understanding of what it means to communicate. They realize that certain behavior is a message to other animals. This means that their communication at least here matches the linguistic communication of humans.


So far we have only considered ways of communication between animals that are widely accepted. Fortunately more and more scientists become convinced that a materialistic vision on animals is in fact much too constricted. One can assume that, just like people, animals are psychological beings in a physical body. Parapsychology was interested in telepathy in animals early on and now research into the subject is still being done by someone like the British biologist Rupert Sheldrake (footnote 8). He correctly uses the strict ethical guideline that animals may not get hurt by his research. Sheldrake deals with, among others, the phenomenon of pets who seem to sense when their owner decides to come home, without them being able to know this in a regular (sensory) way. He set up harmless experiments with pets in which normal factors had been systematically excluded. This research has shown that at least some pets, of several species, are truly capable of telepathy. Rupert Sheldrake connects these results, for that matter, to his theory of the so-called morphic fields which are would be responsible for the development of an animal and enable it to make contact with other animals outside space and time. There are, furthermore, documented cases of pets who managed to find their owners after they had moved to a different town, sometimes thousands of kilometers from the old address. Presumably possible normal factors have been taken well into account in these cases. There are even impressive cases in which pets without apparent reason became very emotional at the exact time their owner was involved in a serious accident or died suddenly. The entire range of telepathy that is found in humans, is also found in animals. Some people find this very threatening because they do not (want to) consider animals as mental beings. They are afraid that proving ESP in animals would go hand in hand with a devaluation of these abilities in humans. John L. Randall (footnote 10) even goes so far as to claim that it is plausible that there never is any real telepathy in animals. Paranormal cases in this area, according to his theory, would be caused by telekinesis on the part of the people, which would affect the brain of the animal in question. Such an idea, however, would only be plausible if you state in advance that there is no psychological relationship between animals and humans and this is of course ludicrous. Ever since the eighties people have been developing an interest, under the influence of the work of writers like Focco Huisman and Beatrice Lydecker (footnote 11) in the possibility, as owners, to communicate telepathically with their own pets. Not all the evidence they have produced points unequivocally to telepathy with these animals themselves. Part of it could also be based on human clairvoyance or even just coincidence. But there is actually reason to believe that humans in some instances will be able to enter into telepathic contact with animals. Telepathy could be considered the most pure form of communication since it doesn't use a system of expressions or codes, but is founded on a direct exchange between minds. W.H.C. Tenhaeff believes, by the way, that animals have telepathic contact with each other much more often than people. Our complex verbal language is supposed to have supplanted telepathy and in this way has alienated us from the possibility to be in direct contact with another person's inner life. The fact that a considerable number of people doubt the existence of telepathy already shows how estranged we have become. There are very different culprits as well, such as in particular the irrational materialism in science which has affected large parts of Western culture (footnote 12).

Communication through symbols

Apart from non-verbal communication with which they can express their emotions or motives and apart from telepathy, several species of animals have some signals at their disposal with which they can refer to specific observations or thoughts. There are species of monkeys and birds that have different cries to refer to different predators. There are species of monkeys and birds that have different cries to refer to different predators. Monkeys living in nature, for example, are able to point at something they want. Two types of communication have not yet been understood to this day, namely communication between bees and between dolphins and other cetaceans. It is known that bees have a complicated system to share information about location, color and taste of food with other bees through a so-called bees' dance. Here the movements of a dancing bee correspond to the qualities of the food. The controversy here is not so much of bees are in fact capable of doing this, but rather to what extent they are aware of what they are doing. Donald Griffin, an important advocate of the idea that animals are psychological beings, is of the opinion that bees can only employ such a system if they are intelligent and know what they are doing. Dolphins and other cetaceans are often thought to have a language of their own. The complicated sounds they produce would in this case, like our human language, correspond specifically to thoughts. Right now it is still unclear whether or not this supposition is correct. Some consider the communication between cetaceans more a form of complex non-verbal communication that rather resembles birdsong or even our own music instead of a true verbal language. Yet the supposition that more might be going on is not as far-fetched as in the case of insects, because it has already been established that dolphins and other cetaceans are certainly very intelligent and self-conscious creatures with a rich and varied social life. It is certainly beyond doubt that members of various species are capable of learning to associate human symbols with certain events or commands. It is certainly beyond doubt that members of various species are capable of learning to associate human symbols with certain events or commands. In an attempt to answer the question where our human language comes from from an evolutionary point of view, a number of scientists, among which Mr. and Mrs. Gardner, Roger Fout (whose research is summarized in Fout's book Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees) and Sue Savage Rumbaugh have tried to teach apes a symbolic language. This concerned simplified variations on the American sign language for the hearing impaired, but also a completely artificial computer system in which the apes had to learn to link random symbols to various concepts. This is still a very controversial area for many scientists, in particular for adherents of Chomsky's theory that the whole of human language is an inborn system that has no true parallels in apes. According to some it is still unclear to what extent the research papers on the famous signing chimpanzee Washoe and the gorilla Koko are reliable. Nevertheless, Savage Rumbaugh's research with bonobo Kanzi especially seems to show that he understand symbols and can use them in a meaningful way. According to Savage Rumbaugh's book of the same name, Kanzi would have learned to understand certain syntactic relationships.

Emancipation of animals

Traditionally there has been, especially in the Western world, much resistance among scientists against the idea that animals are psychological beings. Animals cannot speak and that would show, according to the Cartesian tradition (footnote 13) that they have no inner life. A contemporary psychologist who wants to keep this tradition alive is Bob Bermond (footnote 14). He proclaims that it is possible to separate non-verbal communication in humans from their feelings, so that it wouldn't be at all convincing that such non-verbal communication in animals truly mirrors their inner life. Consciously experienced feelings in humans would be produced by different, more recent parts of the brain than emotional behavior. Thus, according to Bermond, all we need to do is check if these more recent brain structures are also present in another species This is the case for only a very limited number of species, and thus Bermond concludes there are merely a handful of animals with feelings. Non-verbal communication in animals would in the great majority of cases have nothing to do with what is going on inside them. As has been mentioned before, this reductionist approach has its parallel in the way especially John L. Randall deals with the subject of telepathy in animals. The topic of conscious symbolic communication in animals meets with unusually fierce resistance. Yet others are not keen on a scientific recognition that animals can express feelings through emotional behavior for reasons that have nothing to do with science. Data gathered by researchers into well-being are all too readily ignored by people who stand to gain from the exploitation of animals. All this should not conceal that, when it comes to communication, we have much more in common with animals than it would seem on the surface. It is high time that we learn to listen more closely to animals and dispel the myth that they have nothing to say.


  1. Chomsky, Noam Knowledge or Language: Its Nature, Origine and Use. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1986.
  2. This definition does not correspond to a more biological or behavioral definition where it does not matter if the information that is communicated has any relation to the animal's inner experience.
  3. See: Rivas, E. & T. Rivas, 'Zijn mensen de enige dieren met een bewustzijn?'. In: Prana magazine 72 (1992) (p 83-88).
  4. The exceptions are for instance so-called onomatopoeias which imitate sounds. For example 'boom' to indicate a fall of a heavy object.See: Wemelsfelder, F., Animal Boredom Towards an Empirical Approach or An.
  5. imal Subjectivity. Dissertation Leiden, 1993.
  6. Complete control is apparently very difficult and can only be reached by means of lengthy, intense training. Supporters of the use of the lie detector even claim there will always be physical signs people can't control.
  7. See for example his book Chimpanseepolitiek from 1982.
  8. Whiten, A. & R. W. Byrne (Eds.) Machiavellian Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  9. Sheldrake, R. Dogs that know when their owners are coming home and other unexplained powers of animals, Cosmos, Z&K, 1999.
  10. See: Rivas, T. 'Bestaat er een dierlijke ziel?'. In: Gezond idee! magazine 42 (1998-1999) (P 24-25).
  11. Both have published books on this subject with publisher Ank-Hermes, among which Contact met dieren (Contact with Animals), (Lydecker) and Zo praat je met dieren (How to Talk to Animals) (Huisman).
  12. See: Rivas, T., Geesten met of zonder lichaam (Spirits With or Without a Body), Delft: Koopman & Kraaijenbrink, 2003.
  13. A tradition based on the opinions of Rene Descartes, who stated that non-human animals are mindless and emotionless creatures.
  14. See: Bermond, B., 'The Myth of Animal Suffering', in: Marcel Dol, et al. Animal Consciousness and Animal Ethics, 1997, en Rivas, T. Onrechtvaardig diergebruik. Delft: Koopman & Kraaijenbrink, 2003.

This article was published in Prana magazine, October-November 2003, no. 139, p 59-68.

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