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Language On Intelligence

Vivien Chen's picture

Man & Dog


"When ideas fail, words come in very handy"


            While reading Dennett's novel, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life in my evolution and literature class, many topics and ideas of his have come out at us as very interesting and debatable ones. One in particular that sparked my curiosity is his view on the role of language on intelligence. Dennett boldly states that humans are the most intelligent species; and in fact, "We are also the only species with language" (Dennett, "The Role of Language in Intelligence"). Well, you might ask yourself, is body language not a type of "language?" And what about noise signals that animals might send to each other - is that not an example of communication between two living organisms, otherwise known as language? Dennett would reply with something like this: "Well, sure, those are in fact examples of language; however, there exists a real language as well - and that is the sort that only human beings use." And by using this "real language" that Dennett mentions he then connects it to how it contributes to intelligence. 

            First, it is appropriate to answer the question what is intelligence? Or rather, what is intelligence according to Dennett? There have been many theories on intelligence; many researches and scholars have contemplated and have tried to grasp a concrete and encompassing definition for it, but no consensus has been reached so far. According to the Oxford English Dictionary intelligence is defined as "The faculty of understanding; intellect ... a capacity to understand." Other scholars will uncover multiple layers of this definition by contending that intelligence is the, "aggregate or global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with his environment" (Wechsler, The Measurement of Adult Intelligence). In addition, Dennett's definition of intelligence is unique in the sense that he attributes language to be a "pivotal phenomenon" (Dennett, 371) within it. According to Dennett, language allows us to put things together; for example, if we are given a cluster of words, we have the mental capacity to put them together and deliver a response from them. Language also allows us to challenge others, which gives us the ability to explore new grounds. With these reasons, Dennett stands firmly by his belief that humans possess this "real language" of which no other species can challenge.

            Animals do not possess real language because their language (as Dennett refers to as proto-language) is limited - "they are each given as little information as will suffice for it to accomplish its share of the mission" (need-to-know principle) (Dennett, 373). He later expounds on this thought by citing examples of a bird routinely making its nest and of a beaver building its dam. The ways in which humans would construct a next or build a dam are entirely different from what a bird or a beaver would do, but the beaver and bird only know how to do it one way – the way that has been successfully “well designed by evolution” (Dennett, 373).

            Although animals have routines that are evidently different from humans’, I would actually like to argue and say that this does not necessarily mean their intelligence is lower than ours, it just means their intelligence is different from ours. The reason for why chimpanzees do not tend campfires is the same reason as to why humans do not carry their young on their backs and climb trees – those actions are not conditioned to be part of our lives. In fact, evidence today suggests that animals are capable of learning “real language.” For example, Chaser, a border collie has the largest vocabulary of any known dog - she recognizes and remembers 1,022 nouns. But that’s not all, she also was taught three different actions: pawing, nosing and taking an object. She was able to successfully carry out each action by acting it out with her toys on command. This not only shows that Chaser recognizes the verb, but it also demonstrates that she understands the verb had a meaning. (Wade, “Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl!”) Chaser and her profound ability to “put words together” provides us with evidence that goes against Dennett’s need-to-know principle, ensuring us that animals have the intelligence to recognize and understand “real language.”

            To continue, Dennett’s claim that humans are the only species with language seems to suggest a limited and linear view of what language is. He mentions that “tool use accompanied a major increase in intelligence;” (Dennett, The Role of Language in Intelligence) and one of the biggest tools are words. Words are a part of language (from what we know of it), which assumes that the ability to vocalize words or producing words is an integral part of language. Because of this, many anthropologists believe that it is impossible for primates to acquire language. Another possible explanation of the inability of primates to acquire verbal language, posited by Robert Yerkes, is that Primates are not inclined towards imitation of sounds and therefore cannot learn verbal language.  With this in mind, their inability to vocalize words leaves them to discover another type of language – sign language. Even though Dennett does not recognize this as “real language,” I contend that sign language is language for it is a means of communication where a being can deliver information to another party who is able to receive and comprehend the information.

            In addition, an example of a primate acting out sign language is Washoe the chimpanzee. She was raised in a friendly environment where she learned sign language both through imitation and instrumental learning from her caretakers. Washoe was even able to transfer signs to a new referent without specific instruction.  For example, she learned the word "more" in relation to tickling but was spontaneously able to apply the term to another referent. Her ability to combine signs is equivalent to the ability of human children to connect words in sentences (Kosseff, Primate Use of Language). Washoe’s proficiency in sign language supports my theory that animals or primates are capable of acquiring language; and even though they do this differently than humans do, their means is still “language” nonetheless.

            I think the main concern or problem with “language” is the preconceived notions we attach to it. Language, to us, is associated with verbal communication – the ability to coherently sound out words to make rational sentences. However, it seems simple-minded of us to think that to be the universal means of communication or the “real” means of communication. In fact, there are various ways in which organisms communicate, verbally or not. Therefore, to debase an organism’s intelligence because of its efficiency in language (based on our point of view on what language is) is moot. I do not doubt humans’ intelligence levels, but I do want to note that intelligence is completely versatile, which is why to this day scholars still debate over its definition.


Works Cited: Print Sources

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New                York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 

Wechsler, David. The measurement of adult intelligence. Baltimore, MD: Williams &                    Wilkins, 1940. 



Anne Dalke's picture

On Beyond Words

What I see you doing here is calling Dennett on two presumptions: first, that language involves the use of words, and secondly that the use of words can be read as an index to intelligence. You counter both claims with lots of examples of animals who can communicate (i.e. use language) non-verbally, and so demonstrate different intelligences. Your points are well taken, and well made.

I have a particular interest in your argument because I'm deep in a fascinating new book by Margaret Price called Mad @ School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. As asked by the student w/ whom I'm reading the text, in an independent survey of disability studies, wouldn't it be

boring and perhaps even stifling if everyone were taught to think in the same way, to develop the same types of arguments, to employ the same organizational frameworks for expressing their thoughts?  Price suggests that the structure of the academic essay with its demands for “coherence”, logic, and rationale doesn’t allow for more “active minds” who may not be able to articulate their thoughts in the way the academy demands.  She asks, “…does the demonstration of coherence indicate a stronger mind?” (6).  What if students could start submitting pictures instead of essays, bullet points instead of paragraphs, or oral presentations instead of a final paper?  Price asks, “What transformation would need to occur before those who pursue academic discourse can be ‘heard’ (which I take to mean “respected”) , not in spite of our mental disabilities, but with an through them?” (8). ... what if we thought of students with mental illnesses not as merely triumphing their illness by surviving the academy, but as using their illness to deepen their own work?  In the classroom, we often consider different genders and races to add diversity to the discussion, but what if someone’s experience with bi-polar disorder, depression, or anxiety, could illuminate academic conversations?  

What I'm suggesting here--following Price, and extending on your work-- is that human intelligence, and language use, is also varied, and valuable, and also often severely limited by our academic conventions. What do you think of our exploration of this new form of writing, web papers, as one gesture beyond such limitations?