A key distinguishing feature of our Western culture is the idea that humans are radically separate from nature and other animals. Generally, our ability to communicate verbally and our ability to reason are the main reasons given to support this argument.

Researchers working on animal communication (National Geographic) could be seen to be challenging this framework of human superiority over other creatures. But their challenge, if present at all, is suspect.

The researchers base their research on human centred notions of intelligence; cognition, abstract thinking and communication, and even brain size. There are other forms of intelligence – the intelligence of the body, the intelligence of the senses, the intelligence of recognising who and what you are (without worry and angst), and of being properly adapted to your environment. On these other forms of intelligence, humans fare rather poorly.

Indeed, there is also the challenge of increasing the hurdle for animal intelligence once animals have “passed” certain tests. It is clear that, for some, evidence of any sort will not sway their view of humans as radically separate from the rest of nature, and other animals.

The challenge of extending moral and ethical standing to other species should not rely on the ability of animals to communicate in ways we can understand. Listen to this researcher: “I thought if he (a parrot) learned to communicate ..”. Guess what: The parrot does communicate – it’s just that we don’t understand.

Perhaps the researchers should be finding out whether humans can communicate in animal ways – can we bark like dogs, or have a sense of smell as subtle as cats, for example. The fact that this sounds absurd, and fanciful, shows how challenging it is to construct a dialogical engagement with other species without adopting a human construct of intelligence.

The charge of anthropomorphism is always an easy one to aim at the concept and practice of inter-species communication. Val Plumwood called it a bullying concept used to “enforce segregated and polarised vocabularies that rob the non-human world of agency and the possibility of speech.”

Isn’t it time we learnt to quieten ourselves, and start to listen to the bigger conversations happening all around us, all the time? Listen to the world around you … you’ll be amazed at what you can hear. Understanding … well that takes a bit longer.