Speak, Prairie Dog, and Other News

If Prairie Dogs Can Talk, What Makes People So Special?

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On the Shelf


Sup, dog.

  • People think they’re so special, with their tools and their language and their consciousness. “There’s nothing like us in the universe,” people say. “We’re people!” It’s enough to make you sick. How grand, then, to see the pillars of anthropocentrism begin to fall. Con Slobodchikoff, a biology professor, has been studying the sounds of prairie dogs for three decades, and it’s his belief that they have a distinct language. They know what’s up. Whenever intruders approach their little prairie-dog towns, they can sound very precise alarms. Slobodchikoff told Ferris Jabr that he prefers the term language to communication: “Calling it communication sets up that us-versus-them divide … I don’t think there is a gap. I think it all integrates in there. You can go to Barnes & Noble and pick up book after book that says humans are the only ones with language. That cheats our understanding of animal abilities and inhibits the breadth of our investigation. I would like to see people give animals more credence, and I think it’s happening now, slowly. But I would like to push it along a little faster.”
  • Bill Clinton is collaborating with James Patterson on a political thriller. Why? Probably, as Mark Lawson writes, because he has all this specialized presidential know-how he needs to get off his chest: “In a form that prizes believable detail so highly, the American presidency is tough to research. Numerous people can tell you what it’s like to be a senator, submarine commander or secret service agent, but only six living men have sat behind the Oval Office desk … Clinton, in co-authoring fiction, is making official a long informal arrangement. Politicians co-operate partly because they tend to be keen thriller-readers—perhaps an adrenaline-raising genre suits the temperament of those who seek power—but also because they can reveal details and incidents in the knowledge that they will be untraceably disguised, and which could not be confided to journalists or the ghost-writers of their memoirs.”
  • A new exhibition at the National Building Museum explores the design of mental asylums, whose ever-changing architecture speaks to the evolution of mental health. In the U.S., for instance, the Kirkbride Plan made sure that our earliest asylums had plenty of sunlight and fresh air, as Allison Meier writes: “Although they later became overcrowded and plagued by abuse, the Kirkbride institutions represented a turning point toward more humane treatment of mental illness. Unfortunately,their design heritage is now disappearing. From Greystone Hospital, demolished in New Jersey in 2015, to Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, which remains in limbo in Minnesota after a proposed redevelopment fell through, these structures struggle for preservation. The challenge is due not only to their colossal, purpose-built size, but also to their complex history, in which some methods of ‘moral treatment,’ like Thorazine, were successful and others, like lobotomies, were cruel. Even Kirkbride himself was into some of the nineteenth century’s curious fads, such as magic lantern slides showing scary images, which he thought could replace ‘delusions and morbid feelings, at least for a transitory period.’ ”


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