Ignore the incessant, mindless chatter on Twitter – the call of the gibbon says so much more

The period we are living through will come to be known as the Great Garrulousness

I can’t be the only person to have been hurt last week when the Scottish lawyer Aamer Anwar popped up on Newsnight to dismiss the idea that imams are to blame for persuading Muslim teenagers they’ll have more fun in Raqqa than in Ayia Napa. Who do you think takes any notice of an old man in a beard, he asked. Well let me tell him...

Just who teenagers who run away to Syria are listening to was the subject of BBC2’s Britain’s Jihadi Brides, in which Aamer Anwar again made an appearance, this time to deliver some heavyweight denunciations of the guilty, the wicked warmongering West not excluded, but let’s not get into the politics of all that. The air is thick enough already with political recrimination. And, as it happened, the real villain of the peace turned out to be the internet. By blogs are the young and impressionable influenced; by the social media do they influence others; by YouTube are they recruited, and by Twitter do they celebrate their big adventure.

I know the argument against charging the internet with anything. It is only as good or as bad as the people using it. As blame the internet for all that’s rotten in the world, you might as well blame words. Well, funny you should say that. I’m off words right now. Partly because Cameron and Miliband use them. But partly because I just am.

This could have something to do with a research article entitled “Context-specific close-range ‘hoo’ calls in wild gibbons (Hylobates lar)” that has just been published in BMC Evolutionary Biology. I cannot claim to be a regular reader of this journal, though I would be a wiser and I suspect happier man if I were.

The article has been talked about in the newspapers, and recordings of the hoo call were even played on the Today programme. For those two minutes the nation must have fallen into a state of unaccustomed serenity. I like to think some even put down their iPads. Only someone with a heart of stone can hear the hoo call and not want to be up there in the trees with the gibbons.

The time will come when the period we are living through will be known as the Great Garrulousness. Nothing we do is not talked about or recorded. Nothing is too trivial to go without mention; no passing thought is too commonplace to go unshared. Blessed are the reticent for they shall inherit the earth, but who wants to inherit a cacophonous earth? If we close our eyes, however, we can just about imagine an alternative – a near silent world populated solely with gibbons gently calling hoo.

 

But don’t suppose gibbons are calling hoo because they have no other way of amusing themselves. What is of especial interest to the scientists observing them is the variety of meanings and warnings their calls impart. Spoken in one way, hoo communicates the proximity of danger, in another the whereabouts of food. Which prompts the question, why do they risk sending this signal when it is likely to be “costly” to them – costly, that’s to say, in the sense that it could attract the attention of predators or competitors.

I am not sure if an acceptable scientific answer to this would be that gibbons are altruistic, and value the welfare of others above their own, but were that to be the case it would offer a benign justification for all the online noise I’ve been complaining about. Are tweeters, who in some regards resemble gibbons, sending out signals likely to attract vitriolic comment precisely in order to syphon off poisons that would otherwise damage the innocent?

How often do we hear of people’s lives being made a misery by the pestiferousness of trolls, when the obvious remedy is to withdraw from whatever social medium the trolls are making their life a misery on. Is it to preserve the rest of us that, quite unconsciously of course, they stay online and go on suffering? This raises another question: are we, in evolutionary terms, still catching up with gibbons?

But let’s return to the hoo call, which is also employed as part of a duet song by mated pairs. Hoo hoo. Hoo hoo. That’s what I call a love duet. No disagreement or dissonance. No this one loving too well and that one not loving well enough. Here is mutuality and accord. Hoo hoo. Hoo hoo. Compared with such a duet, hummed gently and in unison from tree to tree, “You are My Heart’s Delight” is a crude affair.

Altogether – though I stop short at love birds and swans touching beaks to make heart shapes with their necks – I am a sucker for romanticism in the animal world. Because no morality limits their actions, because they have read no literature on the subject, and so must learn of love’s raptures and pitfalls for themselves, there is an urgent exploratory tenderness in the affection they show to one another. No falling short of expectation. No disappointment. No tristesse. Hoo hoo. Hoo hoo.

So how many messages, beyond expressions of devotion, can you convey with a hoo? No end of them, if you’re a gibbon. A hoo on this frequency means there’s a tiger or a leopard about; a hoo delivered softly, of shorter duration and lower pitch, means an eagle. With a hoo you hunt; with a hoo you cower in fear, and with a hoo you sing to the gibbon you love. How many more words do you need?

This could be a writer’s weariness you detect. Forever raiding the inarticulate, with shabby equipment always deteriorating. If as great a poet as Eliot could feel that, how dare any writer, trapped in the general mess of imprecision, make light of finding words? Gibbon envy should be understandable. Oh, for a sufficiency of sounds. Students of animal communication justify their work by seeing it as adding to our knowledge of human language evolution. But the gibbons singing each to each don’t sound to me like a preliminary to “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. It is marvellous in itself. Hoo hoo. Hoo hoo.

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