Most lions are dangerous

One of the hypotheses posed early in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is that homo sapiens – that is to say, us humans – dominated our sharp-clawed, sharper-toothed cousins via an ability to convey richer information through our language.

Every organism has some ability to communicate. Many have what we would consider a vocal language: barks, yelps, or chirps that convey information to others. Some animals have even demonstrated the ability to intentionally mislead each other. What appears to be unique among humans is to convey subtle differences in meaning, and therefore represent a broader range of experience:

“A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful, a lion,’ but a modern human can tell her friends this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the precise location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of the band can put their heads together and discuss whether to approach the river, chase the lion and hunt the bison.”

The irony is that our brains are not well suited to unpacking that sort of subtlety.

For example, consider difference between the statements, “most lions are dangerous” versus the statement “most dangerous things are lions.” The first statement being true does not require the second statement to be true. However, we mistake these two statements constantly. Nassim Taleb calls this particularly error the roundtrip fallacy.

In other words, our ability to convey subtly does not imply an ability to parse subtlety. We can intuitively produce statements that we don’t intuitively understand.

We are able to hear a partner’s call with perfect clarity, and yet completely misinterpret its meaning. I wonder if this, too, is unique among the homo sapiens.

One Comment

  1. Mike

    We are able to hear a partner’s call with perfect clarity, and yet completely misinterpret its meaning. I wonder if this, too, is unique among the homo sapiens.

    In my BA program, professors took care to distinguish human language from the ways other animals communicate. As a result, we never really looked at those systems in depth, and now I become skeptical whenever I hear people talk about how similar we are to parrots and chimpanzees. I’m sure that they do use simple vocab and syntax, but like you say, nowhere near our level of subtlety.

    Anyway, my main point is that I can’t answer your question. My first instinct was to say “probably not”, because the messages they convey aren’t likely complex enough to be misunderstood, but then I remembered that monkeys can get tired or drunk too. Just like humans, I imagine there are some naturally poor communicators too.

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