Animal Brains and Ockham’s Razor

In C. L. Wrenn‘s wonderful book The English Language (1949), I found this amazingly anthropocentric quotation.

“The theory of the evolution of man as known to scientists, then, must find a place for the emergence of man as a possessor of language as distinct from the so-called ‘highest’ species of anthropoid apes whose varied cries are not language (which implies thought) but only very fully developed conditioned reflexes. The gap between the highest anthropoid ape and the most ‘primitive’ man has not yet been bridged from this point of view of the emergence of language in what may be called ‘homo loquens,’ which is really the same thing as the familiar ‘homo sapiens.’ The hypothesis of some kind of creative act, therefore, may still be tenable in default of a better considering the origin of language.”

Wrenn, p.6

There’s an instructive piece of circular logic here.

Language, he states, is a function of intelligence. The two concepts are inextricably linked in his and the popular mind. Homo Sapiens is Homo Loquensand vice versa; the two terms are equivalent. Both are also the defining characteristic which separates humanity as a species from other animals. Hence, any vocalisation produced by an animal cannot be language because animals are not the possessors of intelligence. Why else does he feel the need to re-enforce his point that the vocalisations of apes cannot be language because this would imply that they think?

IntelligenceBut Wrenn has painted himself into a corner. He is at pains throughout the book to describe himself as an educated man and a scientist who studies language. He is a supporter of the theory of evolution, which (at the time) stated that change within and between species was a slow and gradual process. Yet to bridge the evolutionary gap between ape and human, and despite himself, he must admit the possibility of supernatural intervention. He accepts that the cause may be revealed to have been a “creative act” presumably by some external party.

Surely, the application of Ockham’s Razor to the problem leads to the conclusion that our currently accepted ideas of the exclusivity of intelligence and language cannot be correct? Isn’t it simpler to admit that animals possess intelligence (however we define it) and language (however we may define that term) than to call up visions of white-bearded gentlemen in the sky manipulating us?

This brings up another issue: is the idea we label intelligence really a binary concept. Is it really either present or absent in a species? If this is the case, how can we admit degrees of intelligence – individuals may be more or less intelligent than others – within the species. The problem for me with this idea is that we have no consensus definition of intelligence. If we cannot adequately define the term, how can we measure it? If we can’t measure it, it is the purest arrogance to make such statements about the differences between the human species and the rest of the animal world.

So, are animals intelligent? Do they posses language? In what degree? Until we have workable and agreed definition of both concepts, these questions will continue to prove difficult to answer.