I’ve touched on this before, but it’s worthwhile to be explicit:
There are three types of social science “news” stories:
1. We now know we know nothing! That is, scientists are so confused about everything, your illusions of intellectual confidence are simply further proof of your indiminishable ignorance. Here’s a great example of a proudly-profound befuddlement, an article to which I may return someday.
2. Your bad behavior is not your fault! Even worse: Your good behavior is totally accidental! I don’t have an example ready to hand, but I hardly need one. This “news” is reported just about every day.
3. Dancing Bears are just as smart as you! It’s all a matter of degree: If an ape can pound out poetry that is no worse than the drivel they publish in The New Yorker, then your pretense to knowledge and wisdom is simply a vanity.
Today’s news brings us a Dancing Bear story about dogs:
Dog lovers like to think it is their masterful voices that make their pets so keen to please.
In fact, it is more complex than that – with eye contact playing an important role alongside spoken commands.
Scientists have found the animals pick up not only the words we say, but our ‘intent to communicate’ with them. In fact, dogs are as advanced as a two-year-old child in following eye contact, a study has found.
This also qualifies as a Deathgrip-on-the-Obvious story, since all of this is well known to dog owners. In fact, dogs start to be eclipsed by toddlers at about 13 months, but dogs are much better than humans of any age at tracking eye movements and other physical cues. The acquisition of fathertongue gives us better ways of understanding, where dogs have nothing but perception to rely on.
I’ve written about mothertongue and fathertongue at length, notably here and here. For now it is enough to say that mothertongue is any kind of bodily signaling — from a dog’s tail wagging to a baby’s crying to the imaginary ballroom speaker’s calculated sneer. Mothertongue is any kind of message or expression that does not require abstract conceptual notation.
By contrast, fathertongue is any sort of notation system — words — written, spoken or simply pondered — mathematical symbols, musical scores, etc. Mothertongue is active, immediate, visceral and fleeting, where fathertongue is generally passive, patient, cerebral and enduring. The baby can only cry in the moment, but the words “the baby is crying” can denote a hypothetical — and hence imaginary — present-active-indicative state in perpetuity — which is itself an imaginary contradiction considered in existential or ontological terms, since a baby cannot possibly cry in perpetuity.
But a toddler’s grammar is all expressed in the present-active-indicative: I am eating. I am sad. I want to play with my brother’s toys. That last is a partial invocation of a subjunctive state — an imaginary world not in evidence — and the graduation from mothertongue to fathertongue, for any particular child, represents the gradual acquisition and mastery of the subjunctive mood in grammar: I wish we could have cake instead of broccoli. I want to be a fireman when I grow up. Things would be different if I were in charge around here.
This is me again, from an unpublished novella I wrote for Christmas 2010:
Naso was stopped, snuffling at something, and I was stopped with her. And in that moment, she afforded me an opportunity to demonstrate an essential difference between human beings and animals.
I was thinking, staring at nothing. The whole world was before my eyes, fully apprehensible to all of my senses, but I was consciously aware of none of it. Instead, I was seeing everything I could infer about Tegan’s family, and everything I could imagine doing to change her situation, to make her life not just better but infinitely better.
This mental state is subjunctivity, to give it a name. The real world was visible but unseen because all I could see, in that moment, was the imaginary world behind my eyes. When you say, “Let’s go to the mall,” that’s a subjunctive statement, the projection of an imaginary world. “Hoist the sails,” is the same kind of subjunctive. “If I were King for a day.” “When we sell this harvest.” “Once these clouds clear.” “When I was a boy.” These are all statements about potential or possible or at least conceivable worlds — none of which are in evidence. Because we are capable of thinking subjunctively, we can conceive of anything, even the impossible: “If I could fly unaided…”
This is an amazing power, and only human beings have it. Naso actually can conjure up worlds not in evidence — but only in her dreams. She hunts in her sleep, and her sweetest dreams involve running and smelling, tracking down some mentally-conjured scent. That much is akin to the subconscious mind in human beings. Naso sees like I do, and she dreams like I do, her mind contriving seemingly perfect fake realities while she sleeps.
But what she cannot do, what only human beings can do, is consciously induce unreal realities in her mind. She cannot imagine or hope or wish or hypothesize. She cannot stare off into space and see the life Tegan could have and should have had, the life she may still have if her circumstances change enough.
And I was standing just like that, still as a post, almost ready to speak, when Naso saw a duck on the tarmac ahead of us. She cannot ever see the multitude of imaginary worlds behind her eyes, but she cannot ever stop seeing the real world before her eyes.
She took off after that duck with a leap, and she took me straight down to the the ground in an instant of time too short to measure. I had her lead in my right hand. As she jerked away, my feet slipped out from under me and I fell — very hard, no control — on my left elbow.
As a matter of categorization, today’s doggie “news” is a Dancing Bear story, since it minimizes fathertongue by omission. The actual study reported on is useless: The grand revelation is well known to dog owners, breeders, trainers, etc. It is definitely true that understanding how a dog’s brain functions is valuable — it’s a path to better software. But in the end, the purpose of “news” like this is not to teach you something new but to cause you to dismiss and deride the wonderful, astounding, unprecedented intellectual power you acquired only by mastering fathertongue — a feat which no dog, no dancing bear, no ape or dolphin can ever equal or even approach.