Why can’t we talk to the animals?

The article that started Psy-Q…

Wellcome Trust Blog

We’re publishing the shortlisted entries to the 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. Here, Ben Ambridge describes one theory of why our pets don’t talk back.

Chimpanzee looking tired and sulky. Drawn from life by Mr. Wood. A sulky-looking chimpanzee

As a child, I suffered from a mild obsession with the film Doctor Dolittle (think Rex Harrison, not Eddie Murphy). At the heart of this obsession was a nagging question: Why couldn’t this be real? After all, most dogs and cats understand their own names and at least a couple of simple commands. And on the speaking front there was, of course, the German parrot who snitched on his owner’s cheating husband by repeating the name of his mistress (Uta). So what’s stopping us? Why can’t we go further and, like the eponymous doctor, hold conversations with our animal cousins?

Fast forward a quarter of a century to 2012 and I’m in Manchester anticipating a public lecture by Michael Tomasello

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