Thursday, April 23, 2015

Talking with Dolphins

The new issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (May 2015) has an article about dolphin intelligence and communication. The issue should still be on sale, or you can read the article here:

Dolphin Intelligence

Do dolphins have true language and a level of intelligence comparable to our own? If so, they arrived at this point along a totally different evolutionary path, because primates and cetaceans last shared a common ancestor 95 million years ago. Dolphins have large brains, not only in absolute terms but in relation to body size. They communicate over long distances, and one experiment at a research facility on an island near Honduras hints that a pair of dolphins may be able to coordinate actions by vocally sharing their intentions. It has recently been discovered that dolphins in the wild identify each other by "signature whistles." In other words, they have names—the only nonhuman species known to create symbolic labels for individuals.

John Lily, the neurophysiologist famous for his work on dolphin language and intelligence, eventually drifted so far out to the fringe that the whole subject became discredited for a while. Now, though, these questions are being taken seriously again. The article quotes one researcher as saying, "The question is not how smart are dolphins, but how ARE dolphins smart?" Measuring their intelligence by its similarity to ours may shortchange the other species.

In addition to evolving in a different environment—water instead of dry land and air—they don't have hands. That last difference alone must have a significant effect on how their minds work. Are manipulative organs necessary to the development of what we'd recognize as "our kind" of intelligence? I've often thought that elephants would be good candidates for evolution into sapience on some other planet or in an alternate timeline on our world. Like dolphins (and us), they have large brains, long lifespans, extended childhoods, a complex social structure, and the capacity for voluntary vocalization. Unlike dolphins, they have the additional advantage of manipulative organs (trunks instead of hands). Elaine Morgan, in THE DESCENT OF WOMAN and other books on the "Aquatic Ape Hypothesis," theorizes that the human species shares some of these traits, especially voluntary vocalization, with cetaceans and elephants because our prehuman ancestors did in fact have their development shaped by eons when they spent a lot of their time in water. Whether or not there's any truth to this hypothesis (and some scientists think there is), it makes a fascinating story.

The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article calls dolphins "a kind of alien intelligence sharing our planet—watching them may be the closest we'll come to encountering ET."

Coincidentally, the same issue has an article on the crisis facing the honeybee population and the project to breed a "super bee" able to resist disease and parasites. That article says, "Honeybees are hive minds. Honeybees are linguistic networks." Maybe we don't have to wait until we travel beyond our solar system to communicate with "aliens."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. There are aspects of language that are cultural, and then there are other aspects that are pure information theory and apply across the board to any system of communication.

    I work with a chimpanzee who knows two human languages and spells out words by pointing at letters. A big part of that is enculturation. Of course, chimpanzees are close kin to humans, but I am not sure that the capacity for language has anything to do with genetics, because information can be transferred even among beings with very different intelligence from our own.

  2. Chimpanzee language research is fascinating. I understand it was a big leap forward when scientists realized it wasn't that chimps couldn't grasp language, it was just that they didn't have the vocal apparatus to speak orally as we do.