In March of 2016, a group of scientists reported a startling discovery from the forests of central Japan: syntax, the property of speech that enables it to express limitless meanings, was not unique to human languages. It had been observed in the vocal system of a bird. In her acclaimed new novel The Study of Animal Languages, published last month by Viking-Penguin and written by When We Talk About Animals co-host Lindsay Stern, a biologist named Prue conducts a similar experiment in her laboratory at a New England liberal arts college. Like the actual study, hers is touted as evidence that animals have yet another capacity we assumed made us unique. But in a speech at the heart of the book, where Prue announces her findings, she suggests that the study teaches us more about ourselves than it does about the animal in question. We speak with Lindsay about the limitations of conscience, the spiritual costs of the Anthropocene, and fiction’s capacity to explore the motives behind our search for animal minds.
Twenty minutes southeast of Des Moines, Iowa, you’ll find a large, unassuming cement complex with fenced in grounds. You’d never know it, but inside are five bonobos—including the world-famous Kanzi—thought to be the only remaining nonhuman apes capable of communicating verbally with humans. We speak with Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh about what she’s learned from and about bonobos, humankind’s gentle cousins, during an extraordinarily ambitious, 30-year investigation into their minds.