Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Which species recognize the meaning of the pointed finger?

It's hot. The kind of hot and humid that comes before thunder storms but doesn't go away even after the rain. The kind of hot and humid that makes the red raspberries turn so purple and sweet you can't quite believe they're real.

About this kind of day, they say around here, "A day I wouldn't want to be bailing hay", it is the day to pick raspberries despite the clouds of mosquitoes and the rivulets of sweat curling down your back.

And so I did.

And when I turned around with my bowl there was Emmie the Emu. Emmie loves raspberries. And he doesn't care if they are a little far gone or a little not there yet. He only cares that they are on his side of the fence.

I've been trying to get Emmie to eat out of my hand. He just out waits me and I end up dropping whatever through the fence and when I retreat he eats it.

But just look at that face, he wants raspberries. I collect some and stick the tips of my fingers through the wire with a mound of berries on the tips. He waits. I wait. Then he gives me a sly peeved look. Bam! His large beak bumps my fingers from the top and the berries fall to the ground. He pecks each one quickly and with precision. Each berry shoots down his throat by some kind of emu rapid fire reverse pneumatic pressure.

Was the bam my fingers received an excess of enthusiasm? Or was that a message? I try again. BAM! That was a message.

Okay, fine. I'll dribble them through the fence, which still makes him nervous. I then realize that it might be a height issue. Not that I'm all that much taller than he is but there are undoubtedly emu rules of courtesy I'm not aware of.

I pluck a few more, squat down, and dribble the berries from about 18 inches from the ground. Suddenly he has a friendly look. Interesting. Perhaps I was doing something aggressive I wasn't aware of?

Peck, peck, peck, peck peck. We do it again. Peck, peck, peck, peck. I notice that one has rolled behind him and without thinking I point at it. He turns round and shhhwoop, it's sucked down his throat with the rest. Wait a minute I just pointed my finger at something behind an emu and the emu took the cue, turned, and ate the berry. Well, maybe. Perhaps he knew it was there all the time.

I'll try it again. Being careful he's occupied and doesn't see me plant the single behind him as he's eating the others. I then point again. He again looks where I'm pointing and peck, it's gone. This is significant.

Not long ago I was watching Nova or Nature or one of the other PBS science programs and it was about just this action--the cuing of others by pointing a finger. It's used as a sign of the capability of inter species or intra species ability to work together toward a common goal.

What is one of the first things a human toddler does to get a positive interaction going with another human. If they point their finger at something, automatically most times the other human involved, being capable of speech, says the name of the thing being pointed at.

I had noticed that all little kids seemed to do it and often over and over. Currently scientists are beginning to believe that the action and response are wired in and are a signifier of man's innate urge to teach and learn.

But did you ever do it with your dog? You throw the ball or the stick and the dog either misses the toss or the projectile ends up obscured in some way. If you point at the object, most dogs "get it" and head for the object of play.

Dogs have been hanging with humans for a very long time and they have been Man's partner in many endeavors. People and dogs have worked together toward a common goal for probably thousands of years. Do dogs do something similar with each other which has been adapted to cooperative effort with man? Quite unlikely that they point their fingers as they have none, but perhaps they do it with a look?

But than again traditional Navajos don't point their fingers at something they want looked at by another, it's considered rude. They use their lips to point with, having stifled the possibly innate urge to point.

So the scientists wondered what other species might be in on the game. Stunningly the higher primates do not get it. You can point all you want and they just never figure it out. One of the reasons that it is believed that though they are social and though each might have the same goal at any given moment, they don't work cooperatively with each other to reach that goal.

But it turns out that parrots do get it. Now parrots aren't domesticated. They are tame members of a wild species. So the action hasn't adapted along with man pointing at something but rather perhaps something that parrots do with each other. I'd put big money on the action with parrots being a look. When Quicksilver the African Grey who lives with us, wants to do something that he knows will illicit a negative response from me. He keeps an eye on my eyes. The moment I glance away he goes for the off limits act. Rather like a hawk changing her perch the moment you look down to adjust the camera.

Emmie, who is also a tame (At least for an emu.) member of a wild species, also got it right away. Why?

Why do humans, dogs, parrots, and emus know to follow the invisible line from finger or eyes to an object of joint attention and primates don't?

Donegal Browne


Eleanor, NYC said...


As we all know cats don't recognize a point. Or chose to not let us know whether they do or not.....

Donegal Browne said...

Exactly, Eleanor, as you know cats are nearly impossible to test. They just don't care most of the time. Therefore scientists kept saying they were pretty much dummys. Something anyone who's watched a cat for long knows is hooey.

But while we're on the finger topic, I realized today that perhaps it's not just the finger that gets a bird to look but perhaps it's the finger and the eyes.

I'll have to experiment.