Irene Pepperberg challenges the idea that the capacity for language and abstract thought is unique to primates. “If one starts with a brain of a certain complexity and gives it enough social and ecological support, that brain will develop at least the building blocks of a complex communication system.”
THAT DAMN BIRD: A Talk with Irene Pepperberg provides an entertaining and thought-provoking review of her grey parrot studies and related research. I found particularly interesting a discussion of how playing with toys in physical space relates to the development of language. This has been studied in human children, chimpanzees, and grey parrots.
In the 1970s, [Patricia] Greenfield looked at young children and found that at the time they start serially and hierarchically stacking toys like cups and rings in perfect order, they also start combining their labels in somewhat regular syntactic patterns; that is, they begin to produce phrases like “Want cookie,” or “Want more milk.”
Greenfield argued at the time that these capabilities were unique to humans. Since then similar behavior has been observed in other primates and in grey parrots. It struck me as surprising, yet obvious, that both words and actions are reflective of abstract thought. Play is gestural language.
My words and sounds lack texture and color, except through the effort of imagination. I do, however, feel the shape of ideas. As a software engineer, people have often told me that I must have an aptitude for logic and mathematics. I do enjoy math, but it didn’t come easily to me. For me, math is a language like Spanish or Java. Software is kinetic sculpture.
Bits flow through data structures and algorithms like water over rapids or a fountain. Data has texture and color that is only occasionally tied to its human representation. Code can take on elegant organic forms or sleek, polished edges. Old code can get crusty and brittle or retain the fragile beauty of Venetian glass. Some code is lumpy like oatmeal or spiky, like pine cones. Sometimes it hangs together like some bad knock-off of a Rube Goldberg machine and its hard to believe that it works, yet it does. It is delightful when it is soft and supple — writing a new module is like adding a partner to the dance.
When the software doesn’t work quite right, I can sometimes see the flaw in my minds eye, hiding in a fold of fabric or obscured by a shiny bronze gear. Like a potter at the wheel I smooth the rough edges. Mixed metaphors are natural as I work in the n-dimensional space that is my innate conception of what may be several hundred thousand lines of code.