Sunday, August 12, 2007

Christine Kenneally's "The First Word"

Christine Kenneally is a freelance journalist and author who has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Discover, Slate and Salon, as well as other publications.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, and reported the following:
P99 of The First Word begins with the second half of a dolphin story from researcher Diana Reiss, who at one time worked with dolphins. If the animals misbehaved, Reiss would give them a time-out. This involved getting up from the edge of the pool, walking back about 20 feet, and looking at the dolphin but not interacting with it. One day when feeding a dolphin, Reiss accidentally let a tail with fins -- a disliked food -- slip through. In response, the dolphin swam to the other side of the pool and rose vertically out the water to look at Reiss for a minute or two. P98 ends like this: "'This feels a lot like a time-out!' thought Reiss." P99 begins:

She decided to test the dolphin, and a few days later she let an uncut fish tail slip through on purpose. The dolphin did the same thing, giving her another time-out. Reiss repeated the experiment three additional times, each with the same result. Dolphins are natural imitators, said Reiss, and imitation is an important part of the ability to learn. They are what Reiss calls "contingency testers," forever probing and exploring objects, and extremely adept at recognizing and generating patterns. The intentions behind their actions can be as obvious as our own.

This page sits halfway through chapter 5 -- a crucial segment of the book. Called, "You have to have something to talk about," it lays out a series of experiments conducted on animals as diverse as chimpanzees, elephants, belugas, African Grey parrots, orangutans, and New Caledonian crows. The central idea of The First Word is that we have always thought of language as a discrete human trait. But it isn't. The same applies to 'thought.' Many non-human creatures have been shown in rigorous, scientific experiments to have sophisticated mental abilities that overlap with our own. This is particularly useful in working out how language evolved. We can see which of the cognitive abilities that underlies language are shared with other animals and which only we have.
Read more about The First Word at Christine Kenneally's website.

--Marshal Zeringue