I first met Sammy Davis, Junior, when I was nine. At the edge of the kitchen counter, he waited, a gray house lizard—what we in the Philippines called butiki. No bigger than my father’s index finger, half of him was a thin, twitching tail that tapered to a point.
Sammy Davis was a similar specimen of Hemidactylus frenatus that my mother and father discovered long ago in their first apartment near España Boulevard in Manila. He had kept the moths and mosquitos at bay, and so they’d tolerated, then befriended him.
Now, several years later, my father approached Junior, making a series of clicks with his tongue, his hand outstretched with a pinch of boiled rice. My mother continued nibbling at her steamed chicken while my seven-year-old brother watched with a kind of stunned, frightened look in his eyes.
Still clicking–a quick click-click-click, pause, repeat–my father carefully set down the pinch of rice about two inches away, while the lizard watched with rotating eyes.
It took about half a minute while the lizard twitched his tail, swung his head first this way, then that–before he darted forward and snapped up the rice, swallowed, then darted away down the vertical side of the counter.
Triumphant, my father offered another pinch of rice.
Junior poked his head over the edge, scrambled to the rice, and gobbled it up.
Koko, a lowland gorilla trained by Dr. Penny Patterson, is said to comprehend over one thousand signs from American Sign Language and to understand and respond to a spoken vocabulary of over two thousand English words. Beyond that, Koko is reported to have invented her own signs to communicate new thoughts: for example, describing a ring by combining “finger” and “bracelet” into the new word “finger-bracelet.”
Kanzi, a bonobo, has been using a specialized keyboard with symbols on the keys to communicate with the team of primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, using a vocabulary of six hundred words.
Alex, an African Grey, was shown by Dr. Irene Pepperberg to understand over a hundred English words and could identify various colors and shapes.
A controversial project in the 1970s saw a baby chimpanzee named Neam Chimpsky—“Nim,” for short—taken from his mother just days after birth at a primate research center. Behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace aimed to raise Nim as a human child, placing him with human families who strove to teach him a form of American Sign Language. Despite a sad end, when researchers attempted to re-integrate him unsuccessfully with other chimpanzees, Nim learned to sign in three- and four-word sentences:
Apple me eat.
Drink me Nim.
Finish hug Nim.
Give me eat.
Hug me Nim.
Tickle me Nim.
Yogurt Nim eat.
Banana eat me Nim.
Me eat drink more.
Tickle me Nim play.
In a NASA-funded experiment with a bottlenose dolphin named Peter, neuroscientist John C. Lilly tried to prove his theory that dolphins could learn language via constant human contact. Over ten weeks, Margaret Howe, his research assistant, spent day and night with Peter.
Dolphins can make human-sounding noises via their blowholes, and Margaret’s goal was for Peter to mimic sounds that he heard.
Over time, Peter could pronounce a rough version of several words, including “hello,” “we,” “one,” “triangle,” “diamond,” and “ball.” His favorites:
Play, play, play
Disturbingly, Peter got emotionally attached to and aggressive with Margaret, circling around her, nibbling her, and jamming himself against her legs. The behavior escalated, and he was quickly re-instated with other dolphins until he had calmed down enough to be re-introduced to Margaret.
Unfortunately, after ten weeks, funding for the project ended, and Peter was shipped to another lab. Without Margaret, he apparently lost the will to live and refused to breathe, sinking to the bottom of his tank in what might be understood as suicide.
Months later, I’m alone in the kitchen when I hear a clicking beside me.
There is Junior, his eyes two quivering balls of black, his tail flicking, right in the middle of the table.
I throw a rice grain at him, and he runs forward, catching it in his mouth and swallowing. I follow with several more.
Two clicks means “I’m done.” He twitches his tail one more time, turns, and is gone.
On August 15, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman was examining data from Ohio State University’s radio telescope, part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. He saw an anomaly in the data from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius in the 1.43GHz frequency. Most scientists agree that would be the most likely frequency an alien civilization would use to broadcast a signal. It was so amazing that Ehman circled it and wrote “Wow!” in the margin of the print-out. Up until then, the signal had resisted all explanation. The signal’s strength was represented on a scale of thirty-six intensity levels by the numerals 0-9, then A-Z. The 72-second signal formed a perfect bell curve:
We are here.
Out there, beyond the furthest arms of our galaxy, our radio telescopes broadcast our own signals, our hopes and dreams, in a language we hope someone will understand.
Our spacecraft bear plaques engraved with drawings and symbols of ourselves in a form we hope someone will decipher.
And we listen, straining to hear beyond the noise of supernovae and neutron stars, to ascertain if there is indeed somebody out there.
SAMUEL PERALTA is a physicist and storyteller. An Amazon bestselling author, he is also the creator and driving force behind the Future Chronicles series of speculative fiction anthologies, with 14 consecutive titles ranking at the top of the Amazon SF Bestseller lists, several hitting the overall Amazon Top 10 Bestsellers list. His own work has been recognized in Best American Science Fiction and included in the author community anthology for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer.
This article was first published, in slightly different form, as the Foreword to Interspecies