Wednesday, June 16, 1999

The First Chip

I had a professor who amused himself by looking for jokes in Aristotle. From time to time he would come to class and announce that he had discovered what certainly must have been a new nugget of Greek humor. For reasons which have long since faded past grasp, "One swallow doth not a summer make" was supposed to be a real gut-splitter. Whether it was or not, I have since concluded that peals of laughter must have resounded from the Lyceum when Aristotle remarked that "It is best in all things to begin at the beginning". After all, where else would one begin?

This crack must have been particularly hilarious because, before all, what is the beginning of anything? It is not at all clear; so that, in the end, one is left with the advice that is best to make a start somehow.

According to St. John, the beginning was with the Word. I don't think Aristotle would have disagreed. What distinguishes men from animals, he says, is not "speech" -- for animals vocalize "pleasure and pain". By this, Aristotle did not just mean that dogs bark when excited or yelp when hurt, but that the communications of animals were generally limited to vocalizing reaction to stimuli.

Modern science has both modified and confirmed Aristotle's observations. It appears that the flight patterns of bees communicate perhaps something more than mere reactions to stimuli, at least in the narrow sense of that phrase. It also appears that higher order of primates are capable of symbolic communication. While their vocal cords may not be able to produce the variety of sounds we call "speech", their brains can associate and manipulate visual symbols which serve as surrogates for the sound symbols we use. Although these studies are somewhat controversial, they raise a creditable possibility that some animals at least may be capable of more than Learian howling.

On the other hand, recent sound-graph studies have shown that, left to their own devices, animal communications are limited to four basic sounds: barks, growls, yelps and whines. For example, a chirp produces the same graph pattern as a bark. These basic sounds are understood across species and correspond to the basic stimuli of excitement, anger, pain and appeasement. Pitch , body language and ambiguous sound combinations , such as whine-growls, provide for additional "shades of meaning." Intriguing as these studies are, they basically confirm Aristotle's conclusion that animal communication is limited to vocalizing various states of pleasure or pain.

Humans, by contrast, says Aristotle, are capable of articulate speech. By this he means that we humans can associate spoken and written words with specific things, by which act of naming we enter into the virtual reality of a rational universe. This "power of speech is intended by Nature to set forth the expedient and the inexpedient, and therefore likewise, the just and the unjust ; " and the "association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state." This, then, is the beginning of the Woodchip Gazette.

©WCG, 1999

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