Recursive Sequences and Language

Recursive Sequences and Language - Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker

One of the most interesting differences between animals and humans is language. All animals communicate, and most animals that humans relate to use sounds to facilitate their communication. In recent studies, researchers have suggested that the use of recursive sequences by monkeys and crows is a type of language. However, communication and language are not the same.

The dictionary definition of recursive is “doing or saying the same thing several times in order to produce a particular result.” The newest research shows that crows and monkeys use recursive sequences at a level comparable to what a three or four-year-old child would do. There are a variety of explanations as to why these animals use recursive sequences, but this does not mean that crows and monkeys are using language or that they possess culture or express identity.

A woodpecker likes to pound on the flashing of my chimney
with such enthusiasm that people can hear it throughout the neighborhood. This is communication warning all other woodpeckers to stay out of his territory. Likewise, the cardinal that sits in a bush near my office window “sings,” but the song is a warning, not an expression of language or music.

The dictionary defines language as “a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release.”

The Bible defines humans as beings uniquely created in the image of God. This is a spiritual definition and does not involve intelligence or skills. We see the spiritual nature of humans in a variety of characteristics. Those include our creative ability in art and music, self-concept and recognition, and the ability to feel guilt, sympathy, and empathy. Those are all manifestations of the spiritual nature of humans. Recursive sequences may or may not be among these characteristics, but they are not a singular indicator of being human. Because of our spiritual nature, humans also have the capacity to worship and envision life beyond death.

— John N. Clayton © 2022