Speechless in Eden (excerpt)

Chapter 1 – Tracing the Roots of Human-Animal Communication

“Don’t say a word to him,” I instructed the hesitant young woman with the spaniel heading toward the door. “Just go to the door and stand there and let him figure it out. He knows to sit and wait for you to go out first.”

“But what if…”

“Trust him and trust yourself,” I reminded her, summing up a main point in our previous discussion of her relationship with her dog as the cause of his many behavioral problems.

She stood at the door with doubt radiating from every cell, her body tense with the desire tell her pet to sit, to cajole or berate him to obey. The dog picked up on this immediately and began jumping on her. She started to say something to him then looked at me, took a deep breath, folded her arms across her chest, and looked over her pet’s head serenely instead.

Yes! I crowed inwardly. She’s got it!

The spaniel gave three more jumps, each one less enthusiastic that its predecessor, then tried nudging his owner with his nose to get her to open the door so he could bolt out as usual. When she continued ignoring him, he shifted nervously in front of her, wearing a look of such confusion only a fool would deny this animal the ability to think. One more much more tentative jump, a final nudge, then he stopped and stared at her. This time she stared back and I knew a silent dialogue was occurring, albeit perhaps one that the human participant didn’t even realize. After less than a minute of this, the dog slowly lowered his rear end to the floor and sat.

“Oh, wow,” murmured the owner when she realized what the two of them had done.

Oh, wow, indeed.

* * *

As a young child, one of my earliest realizations was that the world was made up of two kinds of people: those with animal sense and those without. Even though I didn’t understand the specifics of this quality until I began exploring the nature of the human-animal bond years later, it seemed so obvious that some people felt naturally more connected to animals than others. By “connected” I don’t mean that they gush exuberantly over their fluffy cats or coo to their little poodles. Quite the contrary. Those with animal sense can access a unique, wordless dimension where they share physical, mental, and emotional experiences with animals that others can’t. When cut off from animals, we-for I am one of them—feel like an amputee whose mind generates a phantom limb to replace the missing one. We walk through animal-free settings and always think we see a flutter of dog-, cat-, or bird-like motion in an otherwise sterile human environment.

Conversely, we may say that those people intuitively recognize people-sense in certain animals, while other humans remain oblivious to this quality, too.

Out of this awareness springs the notion that the human-animal bond functions as one of the strongest forces in nature because it serves as the language we and animals use to communicate. Although the potential for humans to communicate with members of all species surely exists, this book will focus on that which occurs with domestic animals for three reasons. First, these are the animals with which we are the most familiar. Second, they’re the ones with whom humans form the most intimate relationships. Third, human-domestic animal communication has been routinely ignored by science and trivialized by the mass media. Both the humans and the domestic animals involved in these exchanges deserve more than that.

Granted the idea that the bond might serve as the means of interspecies communication between certain people and animals does elicit warm fuzzy Dr. Doolittle images. However, the intimacy of that communication is not without its darker elements, too. Imagine each of the following scenarios in terms of any physical or mental changes it elicits in you:

  1. You’re lying on the couch reading a captivating book and you begin stroking your pet who sleeps beside you, but doesn’t respond.
  2. When you begin stroking your pet, he or she sighs and presses even more closely against you.
  3. When you begin stroking your pet, the animal suddenly snarls and bites you.

Now think about what you believe your pet experiences during these same events.

Most people who perform this exercise recognize that, even though the stroking might constitute a totally subconscious act on their parts, they can easily recall the feeling of physical and mental relaxation and contentment that sweeps through their bodies at such times. If the pet makes a positive response, this enhances those human feelings of physical and mental well-being. In both scenarios one and two, they believe that their pets experience similar, if not identical, benefits from the interaction.

If the pet makes what the owner considers a negative response, however, this triggers completely different human physical and mental changes, most commonly those associated with fear. Concurrently, most owners believe that some negative physical or mental state which they inadvertently triggered with the stroking precipitated the pet’s attack: The stroking caused the animal pain or frightened it for some reason.

This simple exercise makes it clear to most animal owners that they and their animals communicate using a combination of physical and mental components that consciously or subconsciously manifest within each animal and human as well as elicit physical and mental changes in the other. However, for as logical as that might seem to those with animal sense, it’s a view science has strongly resisted for centuries, particularly if we further break down that mental component into thought and emotion.

The Triune Bond

Few who have studied the way humans and domestic animal interact would argue that the bond consists of three components.
How the interaction effects the person’s and the animal’s physiology
How it affects the person’s and animal’s thoughts
How it affects the person’s and animal’s emotions

Unfortunately, that assumption flies in the face of two myths deeply embedded in the biological and behavioral sciences ever since mathematician René Descartes negotiated a pact with the Church to keep them from persecuting scientists in the 1600s. Drawing on his own religious beliefs, Descartes promised the Church that science would treat humans like a collection of animated mechanical parts and leave the workings of their minds and souls to the Church and (her) philosophers. At the same time, science would accept Church doctrine which viewed animals as a collection of animated mechanical parts incapable of neither thought nor emotion.

For as much as this agreement severely retarded the development of human and veterinary medicine and led to the scientifically sanctioned destruction of an appalling amount of the world’s animal life, it did allow science to accumulate an astounding volume of information regarding the mechanical workings of human and animal bodies. However, it also negated any studies that dared cross the Cartesian line.

Because of this, gaining scientific recognition of the bond and thus interspecies communication has proven an arduous task. If mainstream science still resists the notion that human thoughts and emotions do indeed affect human health and vice versa, the awareness that this same holds true for animals lags even further behind. And trailing even further behind comes scientific acceptance that human thoughts and emotions are capable of affecting animal health and behavior and vice versa. Nonetheless, by analyzing the information currently available about the physiological and psychological elements that comprise the bond, we can begin to get a glimmer of why and how it functions as the language of human-domestic animal communication.

In the Beginning

In spite of the widely accepted view of the bond as a human invention by which we superior humans agreed to care for members of other species, it seems far more likely that a willingness to form such relationships originated within animal rather than human species. Put another way, the animal within us programs us to communicate with animals, not our “higher” human selves.

This makes sense if you think about. Animal behavioral game theory shows time and time again that cooperation pays higher evolutionary dividends than antagonism. Even species which appear the most antagonistic toward each other may reach a point where neither species can survive on its own. For sure, such is the case with predator-prey pairs. Although Western views often portray these as villain-victim encounters, both partners depend on each other for their well-being. A small wildcat cat will upgrade the resident rodent population’s survival skills; the sharper rodents will cause the wildcat cat to upgrade its skills, too. Without the wildcat to control the rodent population, it may exceed the environment’s ability to support it, leading all to die of starvation. On the other hand, if the wildcat kills them all, it will die, too.

Similar villain-victim views also lead us to classify parasitic relationships as definitely one-sided, but that may not necessarily be the case, either. For example, when marine biologists first noticed a particular species of slug in the Bay of Naples, they also noticed the tiny parasitic jellyfish attached near its mouth. However further studies revealed that, although apparently totally dependent on the snail for its existence, the jellyfish retained the ability to reproduce. Not only that, the young of these tiny jellyfish grew up to become normal, full-sized ones. Even more fascinating, the snail also produced larvae which the normal-sized jellyfish engulfed. Once inside the jellyfish, though, the tit-for-tat game continued and the undigested snails began eating the jellyfish. As the snail grew bigger, the jellyfish got smaller and smaller until only the edited parasite remained attached to the snail’s mouth. In spite of the fact that both the snail and the jellyfish pass through phases in which they resemble other species of their own kind who reproduce normally, these two depend on each other for their survival.

Even more thought-provoking, animal studies suggest that intestinal parasites help regulate Th1 and Th2, two components of the immune response. When Th1 gets out of hand, the body may attack its own intestinal cells and inflammatory bowel and other diseases result. Apparently the parasites somehow suppress Th1 and enhance the action of Th2, the component which provides a better environment for worm and host alike. Based on these studies and the realization that people who live in developing countries where intestinal parasites are common rarely get inflammatory bowel diseases, immunoparasitologist Joel Weinstock of the University of Iowa asked six American patients with these diseases to drink a brew of worm eggs. Five of the six went into complete remission within 3 weeks and remained that way for up to 5 months, while the sixth improved significantly in spite of already existing permanent bowel damage. So while tradition primes us to view parasites as evil, we can’t ignore the role they may have played in setting the physiological and psychological stage for interspecies cooperation and communication.

The relationship between an African bird, the greater honeyguide, and the badger demonstrates how such cooperation may include direct communication between higher life forms, too. Theoretically, no bird in its right mind should spend any time around the notoriously grumpy badger. However, these birds and some badgers will work in pairs to find something they both want: honey. The birds locate the hives in rock crevices or termite mounds in the early morning hours before the bees become active, then communicate the location to the badgers who dig out the hives and share the contents with the birds.

However, not all honeyguides work with badgers. Ancient rock paintings suggest that humans and honeyguides have shared a similar relationship for at least 20,000 years. The Borans of Kenya and their birds use elaborate interspecific signals, with the humans emitting a variety of whistles to attract the birds and the birds using a combination of calls and flight and perching patterns to communicate the location of the hive.

If we see such intertwined relationships in species as diverse as snails and jellyfish, intestinal worms and their animal hosts, and birds and badgers, then the idea that the various aspects of the bond the relationships entail eventually came “up” the evolutionary scale to include humans doesn’t seem that unlikely. It seems even more reasonable if you read the many studies of the effects humans and animals have on each others’ most basic physiology. Early in the 20th century, Ivan Pavlov described how the mere presence of a human could alter a dog’s heart rate and create other physiological changes he referred to as the Effect of Person. A daily growing volume of data describes how animal presence affects human pulse, heart rate, cholesterol levels, and other physiological parameters, too. How could we do that if we weren’t connected in some most fundamental way?

However, nothing cemented this belief for me as solidly as a story shared by a former student. Shortly after their marriage, her husband was involved in a serious accident and declared brain dead. He had previously made it clear that he had no desire to be kept alive artificially, but she couldn’t bear to give the order to withdraw mechanical life-support. Instead, she decided to sneak her husband’s beloved cat into the hospital, believing that the animal’s presence would bring him back to life if anything would. As soon as she put the cat on the bed, the animal immediately crawled next to the man and began purring. His hand automatically reached out and began stroking the cat-even though no change in his expression or in any of the equipment monitoring him occurred that would indicate that this represented anything other than a most primitive lower brain function.

For as much as this tale violates those warm fuzzy bond views which maintain that the cat’s presence should have resulted in the man’s miraculous recovery, the idea that we could be evolutionarily programmed to pet or otherwise take care of other domestic animals makes sense. And even though we will never know exactly what caused that first human to connect with that first honeyguide, it seems safe to say that something did.

Enter Homo sapiens

If we accept that the bond creates the physiological and behavioral language of all domestic interspecific communication and that it came “up” the evolutionary scale, how exactly did we get it? Whereas scientists used to speak of the expression of various qualities as resulting from either genetics or environment (the nature versus nurture dilemma), most now agree that a combination of the two mechanisms must exist. If the capacity for interspecies communication exists, then we should be able to at least postulate how it fits into this scheme.

Most people speak of their animal sense arising from one of three sources. Some point to other family members who turned them on to animals at a young age. Others speak of their animal sense as an inherent part of their character that they willingly nurtured from their earliest days, even if no one in their immediate circle supported this view. Those in a third group talk of being turned on to animals by friends, teachers, or others as they grew older.

I deliberately use the phrase “turned on” because it plays an increasingly important role in genetic theory, too. It’s not enough to have a gene; something needs to turn on that gene to get it to reveal its presence in a particular individual. As far as what might turn on a gene, many things can but parasitic DNA elements called transposons offer some stimulating food for thought regarding how those first genetic changes that supported the development of interspecies communication may have come into being.

In spite of all the attention given to the idea that we are what our genes make us, findings from the human genome project indicate that less than 5% of the genome probably contains functioning genes. About half of the remainder, which some scientists previously dismissed as “junk,” consists of transposons capable of moving around the genome, destabilizing genes, and otherwise wrecking havoc with simple Mendelian theory. Consequently, we might speculate that at one time a transposon altered a particular honeyguide’s genetic make-up, making it more responsive to seeking a cooperative rather than an antagonistic relationship with a member of another species.

Thanks to that little transposon two-step, the honeyguide might decide it’s all right to hang out with badgers, but what might predispose the badger to cooperate with the bird? In addition to causing mutations within the genome, transposons also possess a quality that tickles the fancy of anyone who might wonder why countless generations of honeyguides could or would communicate with badgers, let alone humans: They can jump between species via a process called horizontal transmission. Although no one knows exactly how they do it, the way transposons jump within the gene so resembles the process used by retroviruses (such as HIV) that some speculate that the transposon might hitch a ride on a virus. Because viruses jumping from birds to mammals hardly represents a novel occurrence, the idea that the potential to communicate with a member of different species might similarly jump doesn’t seem as incomprehensible as pre-transposon genetic theory would suggest. Once in the new host, the transposon then tries to alter that individual’s genome, too. If successful, the second individual could conceivably wind up with genetic changes similar to those in the first.

Admittedly, the idea of humans sharing genetic information with birds seems more worthy of science fiction than science. However, other genetic research indicates that equating individuals’ DNA with their looks might not give a true picture of their actual heritage. When evolutionary biologist Mark Springer compared five particular genes in dozens of different mammals, he discovered that the African golden mole shared more genes in common with African elephants, aardvarks and manatees than the common mole. So while we do share roughly 98% of our genes with chimps, we also share 90% with dogs and dogs share about 99% of theirs with wolves. Who knows? We might discover that, like the golden mole, our evolutionary family contains a lot of members we never suspected were relatives either.

If we accept that a genetic propensity for interspecies communication exists and that such may have been transferred from one species to another, then we also need to consider what environmental cues might affect its expression in humans. It appears that early exposure to animals plays a critical role in this process. A big question among those who study the bond is “How big is the window of opportunity for turning on animal sensitivity in a child?” Based on studies of animal domestication (which we’ll discuss shortly), it would seem that this occurs at a very young age, probably from shortly after birth to about 2-3 years of age, depending on the child. While this may mean that others make a conscious effort to expose the child to positive animal experiences at this time, the child also may be attracted by animals to which others remain oblivious. I recall watching a baby sitting quietly in her mother’s lap in a busy pediatrician’s toy-stuffed waiting room, totally entranced by an ant crawling over her and totally unmindful of the toy her mother waved in front of her. I noticed this because my then very young son asked if he could watch the ant rather than play, too. Unfortunately, as soon as he mentioned it, the mother noticed the ant and brushed it off, much to my horror as well as that of the two children.

What about those children who miss these early experiences? Studies of children raised in cultures where animal abuse ranks as the norm indicate that the older one gets, the harder one must work to develop a sense of animal connection, just an older person who tries to master a foreign language experiences much more difficulty than a young child.

A final group of people simply never develop any sense of animal connection at all. At best, they become like those with photographic memories who can achieve high grades in school without ever truly grasping the information. At worst, they have no desire to do even this and go through life treating animals as objects to use, misuse, or abuse at it suits their purposes. The idea that the genome of at least some individuals could carry the potential for intraspecies communication which then becomes turned on when early exposure to animals occurs remains purely speculative because it posits two concepts that violate the deeply rooted beliefs of conventional science. One, the aforementioned idea that animals possess the minds necessary to indulge in such a display and, two, that these mental as well as physical elements may pass from one generation to the next. However, a long-term Russian study of domestication introduced two other intriguing concepts that challenge those traditional beliefs.

The Russians to the Rescue

During the Cold War when I believed that the Russians could eliminate me and my little dog in a heartbeat with a nuclear bomb, a Russian geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev was conducting experiments that would forever alter my views of domestication and set the stage for a new view of human-animal communication. From 1959 until his death in 1985, the founder of the Siberian Department of the Soviet (now Russian) Academy of Sciences and Director of the Department’s Institute of Cytology of Genetics refined his theory that behavior rather than any physical characteristics played the critical role in domestication. He believed that selecting for one behavioral trait, which he referred to as tamability (and which we might think of as “friendliness”) would suffice to determine if and how well an animal would adapt to human companionship.

Although this might seem perfectly logical to anyone with animal sense, back then the traditional view of domestication held that it resulted from humans selectively breeding animals for physical qualities that enabled them to better serve human needs; any change in the animal’s behavior resulted from human training rather than any inherent change on the animal’s part. This thinking still dominates many purebred registries where show standards focus almost exclusively on physical characteristics with few, if any, points awarded for any behavioral qualities.

The Experiment

Across the board, the most meaningful advances in science come from the most deceptively simple experiments and Belyaev’s was no exception. He began with 30 male foxes and 100 vixens and bred them strictly for tameness, a standard that his successors scrupulously maintained. Now as then, to ensure that any changes don’t result from environmental factors, the animals receive no training. The pups remain with their mothers for the first 1½ – 2 months, live only with their litter mates from then until 3 months of age, and then in separate cages.

To evaluate tameness, an experimenter offers the pup hand-held food and attempts to stroke the animal, both while it’s in a cage and moving freely with other pups in an enclosure. Tests are repeated monthly until the pups reach sexual maturity at 7-8 months of age. At that time, the researchers assign the animals to one of three categories, based on their tamability scores:

Class III: Flee from humans and bite when stroked or handled.

Class II: Allow themselves to be stroked and handled, but show no emotionally friendly response toward the researchers.

Class I : Friendly toward experimenters, wagging tails and whining.

When the sixth generation of pups was tested, a fourth class, Class IE-the “domesticated elite”-was added. These animals eagerly establish contact with humans before four weeks of age, whimper to attract attention, and lick and sniff people like dogs. By the tenth generation, 18% of the pups belonged to this class. Forty years later—an incredibly short time!-70-80% belong to the elite population.

The Implications for Human-Domestic Animal Communication

Relative to human-domestic animal communication, the fox experiments proved two crucial points:

  1. The existence of a body-mind connection
  2. The role of neotony or pedomorphosis in domestication

Even though few scientists who wanted to hang on to both their funding and reputations back then would dare use the phrase “body-mind connection,” the remarkable physical differences displayed by the experimental foxes made such a relationship readily apparent. The tame adult foxes display differently colored coats, floppy ears, smaller skulls and shorter muzzles. Over time, the males became more feminized to the point that males and females appeared more alike (monomorphic) than different (dimorphic). Whereas wild animals adhere to a strict annual breeding season, tame ones become sexually mature earlier and experience a longer mating season, with some even mating out of season and twice a year like domestic dogs. Like young wild pups, the tame adults remain far more vocal than their mature wild cohorts their entire lives.

Put another way, the fox studies proved that if you change an animal’s behavior (i.e., its mind), you will change its body.

The recognition that body and mind evolve concurrently further reinforces the probability that humans must possess remnants of animal minds as well as bodies. Indeed, the relatively new field of Evolutionary Psychology explores the many similarities in human and animal behavior. However, beyond that and thanks to multi-species studies, we also know that animals possess the same receptors associated with certain emotions in the same areas of the brain as we do, and they secrete the same neurotransmitters associated with those receptors. (More on this in Chapter 3.) This, in turn, raises the possibility that we share a common emotional as well as physical and behavioral heritage with animals, too. That being the case, the more reasonable question isn’t if human-animal communication exists, but rather how these body-mind elements interact to create an interspecies language.

This brings us to the second point raised by the fox studies. Because the physical traits of the tame foxes more resemble those of immature rather than adult wild animals, these and other studies indicate that domestication suspends an animal in an immature state, a condition referred to as neotony or pedomorphosis. Moreover, neotony naturally extends into the behavioral realm, too. Just as a newborn’s immune system lacks the ability to differentiate its own cells from alien ones, so a newborn animal doesn’t recognize itself as a member of a specific species.

Previously, we discussed the role of early experience in children to turn on a sense of animal connection. Numerous studies of dogs indicate that the first weeks of life provide a crucial window of opportunity during which they form primary social bonds with members of other species, including humans, too. The canine window opens when young pups begin to sense their surroundings and closes when they begin to fear stimuli of unknown origin, with the latter usually occurring between 8 and 12 weeks of age, depending on the breed.

Like domestic dogs, the tame foxes responded to sound and opened their eyes sooner than their wild cohorts, but didn’t show the fear response until 9 weeks of age or older, compared to 6 weeks in their wild counterparts.

From this we can see that the process of domestication takes a two-pronged, albeit paradoxical approach to ensure interspecies communication. On the one hand, it retards physiological and behavioral development which increases an individual’s dependency on others. On the other hand, it accelerates sensory perception and delays the fear response so that domesticated individuals have more time to bond with members of other species.

However, even though the fox studies show us what domestication does to body and mind alike, they don’t explain why it happened in the first place.

The Dilemma of Domestication

Within the human arena where we set the rules, define the players, and record everything in our own language, traditional dogma maintains that the human species sits on top of a pyramid with all other animals arranged below, based on their physical appearance. Although this approach no longer stands up to scientific scrutiny, it remains deeply embedded in our culture.

According to this view, domestication refers to a uniquely human activity whereby we manipulate animals to suit our needs. However, the definition proposed by E.O. Price (Behavioral aspects of animal domestication. Quarterly Review of Biology, 1984) reflects a different view maintained by those in the biological sciences. Price defines domestication as “that process by which a population of animals becomes adapted to humans and the captive environment by some combination of genetic changes occurring over generations and environmentally induced developmental events recurring during each generation.” Notice how this definition doesn’t define humans as the cause of this process.

Perhaps we might attribute this shift of view from humans as the creators of to co-participants in the domestication process to three unlikely species: ants, aphids, and cats. One species of ants relates to a particular species of aphids the same way humans relate to dairy cows. The ants use the aphids to convert plant matter into a sugar-rich fluid called honeydew which they milk the aphids to collect. In exchange for this, the ants protect the defenseless aphids, transport them to the appropriate plants, and carry them underground to their own nests in winter.

Cats posed another problem for the traditional view of domestication as a human-engineered process because, in spite of the fact that they engage in some of the most complex and intimate relationships with humans, no historical evidence exists to support the notion that humans domesticated them. Consequently, they must have somehow domesticated themselves, a state scientists refer to as self-domestication. Prior to the cat, only one other species rated that distinction: us.

Once cats introduced the specter of self-domestication into the realm of “lower animals,” that elicited two more challenges to the traditional view. One, some scientists began to question whether self- rather than human-mediated domestication might be the rule rather than the exception. To say that this created a tizzy is putting it mildly. Nonetheless, the concept of self-domestication occurs more and more frequently in the scientific literature concerning the evolution of our other closest animal companion, the dog. With human and cat firmly positioned in this realm and the dog edging into it, can such a view of other domestic animals be far behind?

The second challenge to the traditional view of domestication relates to timing. Obviously, in order for humans to orchestrate the domestication of other species, human domestication would need to precede it. Although a linear scenario in which humans domesticated all other species makes sense, human self-domestication in this context poses an oxymoron. How can the domesticator domesticate him- or herself, and for what reason? From an evolutionary point of view, the vulnerability imposed by neotony would seem to make those displaying it in an otherwise wild animal environment easy prey, not unlike the young of any species.

Given the dilemma posed by the traditional linear view of human self-domestication followed by the human-mediated domestication of other species, an alternate one which proposes domestication as a concurrent interspecies event that resulted in a dynamic shared interspecies culture deserves some attention.