Hi and welcome back! One of the animated movies I watched as a kid, 1977’s Dot and the Kangaroo, might have been on to something. Some recent research indicates that kangaroos can communicate with humans — on purpose! Today, Lord Snow Presides over yet another behavior that isn’t nearly as limited as people previously thought.
Dot and the Kangaroo.
Way way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, cable television first became a widespread thing for regular Americans. Subscription channels needed to find a lot of content all of a sudden. Thanks to this driving need, these channels ended up with a whole lot of weird little movies that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a lot of attention.
I’m sure that a lot of grown-up content got the same treatment, but I was a child back then so it’s the kid-oriented stuff I remember most.
That’s where the 1977 movie Dot and the Kangaroo comes in. Featuring animated characters against live-action backgrounds, it followed the story of a young Australian girl named Dot. She wanders away from her home one day. A kindly kangaroo mother mourning her lost joey takes pity on the child and decides to help her get back home again.
Somehow, these two end up on a whole bunch of adventures along the way — including a brush with Indigenous Australians who get really upset about Dot witnessing one of their rituals. The pair faces a mythic monster out of Australian legend, and they interact with all sorts of native fauna.
This movie came out several years before the well-publicized case of Azaria Chamberlain, a baby who went missing in Australia and was eventually determined to have been killed by dingos. That said, it sure had some big elements in common. As well, the book the movie’s based on came out many years earlier, in the 1920s (and the movie’s clearly set before 1930).
If you really want to see the whole thing, someone on YouTube’s offering it. Otherwise, here’s one of its most powerful scenes:
“The Bunyip Song.” This was nightmare fuel for me as a kid. In so many ways, the 1970s were just a weird time for animated movies.
A lot of folks have thought for a while that kangaroos were indeed very clever. And now research pushes that estimation a bit further outward.
This kangaroo research asked if kangaroos could communicate meaningfully with humans through intentional gazing. It found:
. . . kangaroos gazed at a human when trying to access food which had been put in a closed box. The kangaroos used gazes to communicate with the human instead of attempting to open the box themselves, a behaviour that is usually expected for domesticated animals.
In fact, 10 out of 11 kangaroos in the testing used intentional gazes to look at the humans involved.
It may not seem like much, but it’s a big deal. Previously, only dogs, horses, and goats have displayed this behavior (and, I’d argue, cats — but they’re way harder to study). This is, as the quote indicates, something domesticated animals do — not wild animals like kangaroos.
But kangaroos are social critters, like the other animals mentioned above. And that might play a bigger role in their cognitive abilities than we previously thought.
Researchers haven’t done a lot of work in this area, but they’ve found out that goats can understand pointing as a means of information gathering and that domesticated animals look to people to gain cues about what we want or what they need to do next.
Then There’s This Research.
When I think about this story, I also think about another bit of recent research regarding human language. It indicates that the elements of language might have existed in our ancestors for the past 40 million years — which isn’t too far into our separation into primates themselves (85 million years ago). Thirty million years ago, our ancestors branched apart from New World monkeys and continued evolving into, well, us.
But before we branched away from New World monkeys, the cognitive elements of language might already have been embedded in our brains.
Researchers tested marmosets (a New World monkey), chimpanzees, and humans. And they found something interesting:
Their study examines one of the most important cognitive elements needed for language processing — that is, the ability to understand the relationship between the words in a phrase, even if they are separated by other parts of the phrase, known as a “non-adjacent dependency.” For example, we know that in the sentence “the dog that bit the cat ran away,” it is the dog who ran away, not the cat, even though there are several other words in between the two phrases. A comparison between apes, monkeys and and humans has now shown that the ability to identify such non-adjacent dependencies is likely to have developed as far back as 40 million years ago.
To perform their test, the scientists created an “artificial grammar” with sounds rather than words. They established dependencies between the sounds. Then, they played “errors” in the sounds to see if their test subjects noticed. And their subjects noticed!
The ability to recognize non-adjacent dependencies might be a widespread primate ability. It wouldn’t surprise me, if so. I doubt humans just woke up one day and began chattering at each other.
Less and Less Separates Us.
Somebody tried to say, ‘I was here!’
— Yuval Noah Harari, regarding a human handprint made 30,000 years ago
Being able to recognize complicated relationships between sounds is an important part of communication. So is being able to intentionally gather information from another creature and share it.
And at least some animals can do both of these.
That means that less and less separates human beings from animals.
More than that, even, as time goes on we discover more and more about our abilities. We learn more all the time about the source of those abilities. And more and more often, their source turns out to be not magic, not supernatural wizards, not fruit trees with unusual properties, but rather the constant, long slow grind of descent with modification.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over kangaroos, language, and yet another bad month to be a Creationist.
NEXT UP: A crisis of conscience for a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ sparks a big discussion on a certain subreddit. See you soon!
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About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)
Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow was my very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit. Though he’s passed on, he now presides over a suggested topic for the day. Of course, please feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. We especially welcome pet pictures!
Last thoughts: If you like playing around with language, you might like the roleplaying game “Land of Og.” In it, you play a very primitive Stone Age human. The game provides players with a list of acceptable words (which are limited by your character’s intelligence). Also, if you liked ‘Dot and the Kangaroo,’ you’re in luck. Not only is there a sequel or two, but there’s a whole series based on the adventures of Dot and various animals.