When I was in graduate school, it was considered unscientific to believe that animals had feelings, could develop a language, or even communicate. As the dominant species, humans were believed to have the corner on language, perception, knowledge, and intelligence. B. F. Skinner believed that nurture was predominant over nature, and we could mold humans into anything that we wanted them to be. Operant conditioning and Classical Conditioning were the modes of learning (Operant—we reinforce desired behavior, Classical—we pair elements to create learning).
Scientists who suggested that animals could grieve, communicate, or use a language were mocked.
Thank God those days are behind us.
Today’s scientists are more accommodating when it comes to understanding communication and intelligence. We recognize that there are different types of intelligence, sensory experiences, and communication.
This new philosophy is coming just in time. As our environment groans from our large (and massively expanding) human population; scientists are investigating how animals and plants that adapt to changing environments can help us.
Many scientists recognize that most species are more dimensional than originally believed. Elephants, primates, dolphins, and whales, in addition to communicating, may have a language. Dogs can understand some words in the human language and primates can be taught sign language.
Many plants and animals have more acute and more complex senses than we possess. For example, a dog’s sense of smell is approximately 50 times greater than ours. When they smell stew, they separately smell carrots, onions, beef, etc. and can identify every ingredient in the stew.
Many animals can detect when a storm is approaching. While scientists hypothesize that this due to an ability to sense a change in barometric pressure; I suspect that there is more to it.
Humans are constrained by what we can sense; scientists are constrained by what we measure. It is not a large leap to suggest that there are other signals, frequencies, energies that exist that we cannot yet measure.
Human arrogance has prevented us from learning from plants and animals. For example, we didn’t recognize that elephants had a language until 20 years ago. They use a low frequency that we could measure but not hear. We also understand that many species grieve. It is believed that some animals (e.g., sea turtles, birds, dogs, butterflies, fish, lobsters, etc.) use Earth’s magnetic field for navigation.
Scientists have recently discovered that trees actually communicate with each other. Yep, that’s right, even plants can communicate. A parent tree nurtures its saplings. How? Mycelium (fungi) form an underground “mycorrhizal network,” which enables individual plants to transfer water, nitrogen, carbon, and other minerals. That network is vast and, in some ways, as sophisticated as the Internet and the human brain. That’s right fungi. (The mushrooms that we see are actually just the reproductive parts of mycelium.)
Since trees use it, what else might?
Some scientific fields, such as mycology (the study of mushrooms) are being led by amateurs and naturalists who are unconstrained by conventional “wisdom.”
The naturalist, Jim Hutto, spent a year as a “turkey mom” to a brood of wild turkeys in a Northern Florida forest. He discovered a new world where turkeys communicated with each other and experienced joy every day through play and curiosity.
Paul Stamets is a recognized expert in fungi and views mushrooms as a critical resource for environmental and medical advances. Mushrooms have been able to adapt to major environmental changes, such as the cataclysmic mass extinction of the dinosaurs and most plants and animals. (For those interested, I recommend the documentary, Fantastic Fungi on Netflix.).
In the past, we have used plants to create medicines, now scientists are investigating what we can learn from animals and plants. What products do they produce (e.g., silk) that can replace commonly used inorganic materials (e.g., in medicine)? Mushrooms, with their ability to break down carbon-based forms, could become among the most effective cleaners of land-based oil spills. Scientists have been able to double the efficiency of solar panels by modifying their structure to match the nano-structure of butterfly wings.
Rather than fighting against and attempting to conquering nature, what if we revered it, worked with it, and took advantage its knowledge and wisdom? I can only hope that new generations of scientists and naturalists learn to work closely with our Mother Earth. She has so many secrets to reveal.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.
Letters to Editor
Deirdre LaMotte says
Wonderful article! One of my favorite books is The Hidden Life of
Trees, what they feel, how they communicate. Wow, it is just
another stunning example of what we can learn about nature!
Angela Rieck says
Thank you for the suggestion, I am looking forward to reading it.
Fascinating read…It goes along with “I wonder…”
Thomas Malone says
I take exception to “it was considered unscientific to believe that animals had feelings, could develop a language, or even communicate.” I received my PhD in biology in 1971, and this was not our perception at the time. It’s been well accepted for decades that animals such as mammals do have feelings and can communicate.
What are the specifics of the experiment that was devised to ascertain that dogs could discern individual vegetables in a stew?