A question from the 18th century for you.
If this tree is standing in this park and there is no-one around to be aware of it, does it exist?
It started with Irish-born philosopher George Berkeley in 1709 as a thought experiment; in his book A Treatise Concerning The Principles Of Human Knowledge. Berkeley had a novel take: everything out there in the world is just in our mind. To be, he said, is to be perceived. Of course the tree doesn’t exist if I’m not there to see it, silly.
Others followed where Berkeley trod: William Fosset’s Natural States (1754) reads: “To say something is meaningful is to say that that is how we arrange it so; how we comprehend it to be, and what is comprehended by you or I may not be by a cat, for example.
“If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless. And if we were to vanish, there would be no tree at all; any meaning would vanish along with us. Other than what the cats make of it all, of course.”
Ah: other than what the cats make of it all. Just so.
This morning, at a quarter to six in the morning, the cat walked in shouting.
The cat always walks in shouting. She does nothing but shout. She is a scold; and an empty tummy is something about which humans should be reprimanded. She rapped us sonically on the knuckles.
In the bed next to me, Phil groaned. He knew there would be no peace until he had answered this call worthy of any gorgon. We might mollify the cat with a bit of stroking, and even elicit a low purr, but she would return very soon to the piercing yowl specifically designed to torture our eardrums.
It is almost as if she knows the right frequency with which to distress us.
Which is clever, because there are many frequencies to choose from. Nestling in our inner ear is a veritable organ: a chamber filled with fluid ready to receive vibrations from the outside world. Thousands of hairs, arranged in neat rows, sense the movement in the fluid and convert it into electric signals which they send to the brain using those useful little messengers, neurons.
Is Kit-Kat playing the organ like a virtuoso?
The academics would have us believe so. Dennis Turner and Patrick Bateson have concluded that meows are just for humans. The cats have watched us disturbing the 18-20kHZ sonic neighbourhood for millennia, and they figured they could get stuff done if they followed suit.
But to assume that Kit Kat is limited to this crowded stretch of the frequency scale would be to join the tree-in-the-park gang. Just because we’re not aware of it doesn’t mean to say it’s not happening. Cat’s ears can detect sound waves at anything from 10-60kHz.
So while the human schmucks lumber sonically around there’s a whole world of communication going on out there.
It would explain the phenomenon best described by author Terry Pratchett as ‘cat chess’.
He wrote about this in The Unadulterated Cat: “You think it’s just found a nice spot to sun itself until you realise that each cat can see at least two other cats.
“Moves are made in a sort of high-speed slink with the belly almost touching the ground. The actual rules are a little unclear to humans, but it would seem that the object of the game is to see every other cat while remaining hidden yourself.”
Dr John Bradshaw of the Bristol Veterinary School says cats go where human cochlea fear to tread, to have their private conversations. When it’s dark; when two cats are separated on their home ground; a mum talking to her kittens: all are occasions when ultrasound is de rigeur.
So: if Kit Kat makes a witty social sonic observation and we are too darned dense to perceive it, did she make the observation?
One fiery stare from this unsettling animal would indicate that yes, you had better believe she did.
It brings to mind a recent discovery by Marissa Ramsier of Humboldt State University in California.
Her work concerns adorable little furry night creatures with the hugest eyes from the Philipines, named Tarsiers. They have for millennia been perceived as utterly, gently silent.
They’re primates, related to us: yet they share traits with lemurs. And when they are fully grown they are about the size of a man’s fist.
Ramsier and her team used recording equipment to pick up ultrasound frequencies way up there beyond human hearing in the 70s and 80s kHz.
Fact is, the tarsiers are shouting their heads off.
Just way beyond our sonic ken.
Picture courtesy of TarsierUK