Gregory Radick, The Simian Tongue

Gregory Radick, The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate About Animal Language. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). 575 pp. £31 hb. ISBN 0226702243.

Gregory’s Radick’s much-welcome monograph recovers and adroitly lays bare the shifting evolutionary implications, institutional fortunes and intellectual capital of one of the most fascinating experimental paradigms in the history of science: the primate playback experiment.  Pioneered by self-trained evolutionist R.L. Garner in the eighteen-nineties and then re-introduced to the scientific mainstream by animal psychologists Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney in the nineteen-seventies, the p.p.e. involves playing recorded simian calls back to members of their own species in the wild and then charting and speculating on their responses.  As Radick rightly emphasizes, this experiment always had far more at stake than the basic ascertainment of whether or not primates can recognize each other’s cries. Indeed, to search for meaning in animal communication is to raise fundamental questions about our own human nature: is language, as Noam Chomsky would have it, an exclusively human capacity or a cross-species behaviour whose existence, however rudimentary, in non-human primates indicates the ultimate proof of the Darwinian argument for common descent? And if language can be shown to exist in animals, how or should it alter their moral status and entitlement to rights? Finally, and for me most intriguingly, what are the epistemological and ontological proofs of language existence for any group, whether animal or human? While conducting their renowned playback experiments with a vervet population in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, Cheney and Seyfarth retained lingering suspicious about their ability to form conclusions about animal consciousness on the basis of even correct responses to routine calls. Does the fact that vervets (typically but not consistently) take to the trees when they hear the cry associated with “leopard” mean that it functions as a symbolic concept for them, or simply as general catalyst for fear and alarm? How much can we deduce about the internal sources and meanings of words through their external articulations? The scientists in this study ask these questions of non-human communication, but they remain equally vital to considerations of human language and aesthetic production.

The book opens with a vivid account of the post-Origin nineteenth-century debates on animal language that, as Radick points out, have not until now been the subject of sustained historical inquiry. Although my own 2006 monograph Language, Science, and Popular Fiction in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle explored Victorian language origin theories, it did so in order to trace their impact on popular literature rather than to interrogate their place within the scientific tradition. Radick is surely right to claim that The Simian Tongue “offers the fullest reconstruction of the post-Darwinian debate now available” and is “the first book to show the importance of this debate for understanding the shape and trajectory of a number of the modern biological and human sciences, including anthropology, psychology, and ethology” (xii).  In its pages, the leading figures in the impassioned and contentious Victorian debate about animal language come alive: Friedrich Max Müller, the German Sanskrit scholar who insisted famously in 1861 that “language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it;” George John Romanes, the staunchly anthropomorphosizing physiologist who routinely diagnosed human motivations and behaviours in animal behaviours; and, most importantly, the fascinating R.L. Garner, son of a slave-owning family in Virginia whose amateur studies in phonetics would eventually lead him to a cage in the French Congo where he allegedly transcribed the cries of local apes and monkeys, hoping to find shared roots between their sounds and the language of local peoples.  I say “allegedly” because Garner’s account of his researches has been regarded as suspect since some local witnesses in Fernan Vaz claimed that he had actually spent his time lounging and drinking at the local mission house and that he had not encountered or recorded a single wild ape. This controversy, along with the unpalatable and scientifically discredited racism that allowed Garner to imagine that ape and human African semantics must be similar because equally “primitive,” explains the decline of Garner’s reputation in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Garner’s subsequent lapse into obscurity is regrettable, not because his theories or massive cultural biases have gained validity— after all, this is the man who once claimed that the “Capuchin is the Caucasian of the monkey race” because it was “less vicious and more willing to treat one civilly” (560) than other primates—[1] but because his work represents a seminal episode in the cultural history of animal language studies, one that alerts us to the shifting ideological investments of this body of inquiry. Most importantly, Garner’s work exposes the hollowness of the conviction that racism and speciesism are natural correlatives.  Indeed, throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, proponents of human linguistic uniqueness like F. Max Müller were typically far more likely to oppose the racialist hierarchies on which imperialism rested than were those evolutionists who, like Garner, rested their claims for the continuity between humans and animals on the alleged animalistic degeneracy of certain races of mankind.  Garner is a fascinating figure, one long overdue for sustained biographical treatment and who would, I think, be a terrific subject for a bio-pic.  What did happen during Garner’s 1892-1893 Congo expedition? What lay behind Garner’s truly bizarre ambition to learn ape language in order to establish a “commercial treaty” (108) with the species? That Radick is unable to answer these questions is no great failing; they are probably best pursued through a different and perhaps more speculative kind of examination than his rigorous history of science approach allows.

The second half of the book charts the forces that buried the primate playback in the first half of the twentieth century and then resuscitated it in the second. Chief among the latter was the new science of ethology, an experiment-based discipline that sought to understand animal communication on what we might deem its own terms.  Rather attempting to teach lab animals how to reproduce or recognize human signs, ethologists study wild animals in situ, attempting to decipher the social function and semantic quality of the noises that primates make to each other in their natural habitat.  The playback technique became a necessarily vital part of this fieldwork, allowing researchers to control and remotely observe the reaction to pre-recorded cries.  Radick’s account of the Seyfarth and Cheney experiments in Amboseli is lucid and compelling, and his ability to marshal the findings of the various disciplines— neurology, ethology, psychology, and semantics— which made their approach possible is truly impressive.

Also striking, but tantalizingly brief, is his suggestion that the recovery of the playback experiment might represent a stride forward in our ethical relations with animals.  Negatively contrasting the lab-based behaviourist studies of the early twentieth-century with ethological work of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, he writes, “Where the project scientists had brought animals into the scientists’ world in order to teach, the playback scientists had taken themselves to the animals’ world in order to learn.  The project thus stood for the failure born of arrogance; the playbacks, or the success born of humility” (364).  This is a fascinating suggestion, but I would have liked to have heard more.  Is the playback experiment really and consistently anti-speciesist in its ideology? How might we reconcile—or do we need to?—the non-speciesist “humility” of contemporary ethologists with the racial politics of the playback experiment’s earliest practitioner? Radick’s reluctance to comment on these issues at length is compounded by a habit of giving the last word in many of his sections to other sources, which he quotes at length without commenting upon (see for example 142, 147).  This reticence represents my only source of frustration with the book. Radick’s approach to his subject is consistently, sometimes somewhat stiflingly, careful, and his own position on the questions that animate this study—do animals have a language? How would we know?—remains somewhat muted.  These are perhaps unfair criticisms of a study that aims not to solve the perennially moot question of animal language, but rather to describe the historical and intellectual conditions under which scientists came to study it through the playback technique.  The Simian Tongue is a ground-breaking work that will be of interest to historians of science, animal studies scholars, eco-critics, and to everyone interested in the relationship between evolutionary ideology and the politics of language.

Christine Ferguson, University of Glasgow


[1] See R.L. Garner, “The Simian Tongue I” The New Review 4 (June 1891): 555-62.

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