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BOOK REVIEW

Sending Signals

Clive Wynne

Songs, Roars, and Rituals: Communication in Birds, Mammals, and Other Animals. Lesley J. Rogers and Gisela Kaplan. x + 207 pp. Harvard University Press, 1998, 2000. $29.95.

I should admit at the outset that I met the authors of this book, Lesley J. Rogers and Gisela Kaplan, at a conference in Sydney, Australia, last May, and that somehow we got into a dreadful altercation about evolutionary psychology. They took the position that evolutionary psychology is just a nice new name for bad old social Darwinism, and I argued that evolutionary psychologists were a fine bunch of sympathetic people trying to develop a nuanced account of how human behavior can be construed within an evolutionary framework.

But any thoughts of getting my own back with this review have had to be ditched. Songs, Roars, and Rituals (an earlier version of which was published in 1998 by Allen & Unwin as Not Only Roars and Rituals) is a hard book to dislike. Rogers and Kaplan have an appealing writing style that rolls along with just the right ratio of anecdote to theory. They make reference to a wide variety of birds and mammals from every continent, but I was particularly struck by the numerous Australian examples, which add color to the narrative (did you know that the palm cockatoo of Australia's tropical north uses a stick to drum on a tree and thereby advertise its territory?) and provide good tests of hypotheses about communication that originated in the Northern Hemisphere.

The first three chapters ("What Is Communication?," "Signals and Sensory Perception" and "Is Signaling Intentional or Unintentional?") are richly laden with examples of animal communication that clarify the definitions being offered. Chapters 4 and 5 cover birds and mammals, respectively; chapter 6 considers the role of learning in communication; chapter 7 deals with evolution; and chapter 8 discusses human-animal contacts. The excellent index will enable those who want examples of communication in anything from Anolis lizards to zebras to find them.

Rogers and Kaplan draw some tricky theoretical distinctions very well. I liked, for example, their care in outlining the difficulties caused by so-called displacement behaviors (behaviors apparently unrelated to an animal's currently motivated activities). Such behaviors are almost exclusively defined by our inability to understand them. However, I found the authors' attempts to distinguish between "intentional" and "unintentional" signaling less convincing. To me, the evidence that several species can modify their calls according to circumstances does not seem relevant to the issue of whether those signaling attempts should be labeled "intentional." A chicken, for example, can give different alarm calls to ground and to aerial predators and is more likely to call if it can see other chickens nearby than if it is on its own. To me this suggests that the algorithm controlling the chicken's behavior is more complex than one might have thought but does not imply anything about intentionality.

I greatly approve of the authors' emphasis on learning in communication (why do people so readily assume that behaviors that run in families have a genetic basis when the commonality could also arise through learning?). However, I don't share their disapproval of the idea of considering genetic bases for communication. Despite being disposed to argue such points, I found this book to be both entertaining and elucidative.—Clive D. L. Wynne, Psychology, University of Western Australia

 

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