Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language. Tim Friend. xii + 274 pp. Free Press, 2004. $25.
It's just before dawn halfway across the Pacific, and science writer Tim Friend is on his bike rushing to see the thousands of albatrosses that call Midway Island home as they come in to land and start up noisy courtships. Cut to Guatemala, and again Friend is up before the sun, trekking through the rain forest to reach a Mayan temple where he will observe black howler monkeys calling out loudly through the morning quiet to proclaim their territory and warn away neighboring males. In his book Animal Talk, Friend flies from species to species and continent to continent, taking readers on a terrific tour of the squeaking, squawking, roaring and raging world of animal communication. He's an excellent guide, boldly striking out through one exotic locale after another. The pace left me a little breathless, but I was grateful that it didn't sag. There is seldom a dull moment in this book.
Although it may be true that journalists typically do a better job than academics of keeping a narrative moving, they are at the mercy of the scientists they call on to explain research findings for them. But Friend seems to have chosen his guides well and is seldom tripped up in explaining the meanings of animal exclamations.
Animal sounds vary in the degree to which they are genetically or environmentally determined (doves deafened at birth still produce typical dove coos, but no one is born speaking French, and no chick is hatched singing like an adult zebra finch). Most utterances of most species are made to defend territory or attract mates. Still, much animal communication is surprisingly sophisticated. Deep sounds are usually warnings; those higher in pitch are conciliatory. Friend tests this generalization by making a high-pitched "tsk" sound to the squirrels outside his apartment in Virginia, and to his surprise they approach him in an inquisitive manner.
Dominant individuals produce deeper sounds, and the vanquished adapt their sound patterns to those of the victors. This appears to be true of humans as well. To make that point, Friend recounts the fascinating analysis by Stanford Gregory and Timothy Gallagher of nonverbal vocal patterns in every U.S. presidential debate held since 1960. Remarkably enough, the dominant speaker in each debate, identified by pitch and voice accommodation patterns, always went on to win the popular vote (yes, Al Gore had the deeper voice in 2000).
You'll know this book is for you if you find you enjoy the story of Hoover the talking harbor seal, which begins on page 235. Hoover, an orphan, was rescued by George and Alice Swallow of Cundy's Harbor, Maine, who kept him at first in their bathtub and then in a tent in the backyard. He would ride into town with George, sticking his head out the car window like a dog, and would thump on the kitchen door to be let into the house. To the Swallows' amazement, at the age of two months Hoover started emulating George's Maine-accented greeting, "Hello they-ah." At the age of four months, grown too large for domestic life, Hoover was taken to the New England Aquarium, where, on meeting females of his own species for the first time, he tried to impress them with the vocalizations he had learned as a pup: "Whaddaya doin'?" and "Get oveh heah." The ladies apparently were not put off by these less-than-suave pickup lines: Hoover did mate successfully, and one of his grandchildren is also known to mimic human speech.—Clive D. L. Wynne, Psychology, University of Florida