Thoughts on Dolphins, Language and Tools

Dolphin Hunting with Conch ShellLanguage is what makes us unique, right? Not necessarily. In this PopSci Article “A Clever New Fishing Method, ‘Conching,’ is the Latest Trend Spreading Among Australia’s Hippest Bottlenose Dolphins”, we find that dolphins around Australia passing on a learned hunting strategy from one pod to another at about the speed we learn about the latest and greatest gadget from friends and family. This is considered news-worthy because in the minds of many humans, dolphins are mere ‘animals who only use rudimentary tools’.

It is anthropocentric of us to assume that other species cannot communicate as well as or better than we do about certain things. Dolphins perceive audio almost like we see – interpolated 3D. Perhaps we cannot understand most of what they’re saying because they probably communicate in 3D audio too. We probably haven’t thought clearly about the tools to record, much less study audio in holographic 3D.

For instance, to tell others they see a school of fish, they might emulate with audio what they ‘see’. They might even embellish it a little by making the fish in their expression very fat. There might even be audio expressions for emotions, actions or ethics that we cannot comprehend. Put that together with the fact that sub-species and even pods likely have their own dialects.

They don’t have a written system of communication, so expressions likely change within the lifetime of a dolphin, maybe even less than that, ending up with dialects that change fluidly through time. For all we know, by the end of a generation, one abstract expression could have a completely opposite meaning from its earlier expression. We see that in our own society, as with the attempt by the writer of the above article to use a current expression like, “That’s Some Seriously Sick Conching, Bro. Dolphins aren’t restricted by our understanding as to what constitutes communication. As far is I know, we don’t have any models yet that will translate what they say and allow us to immediately respond in audio expressions they’ll understand.

There are certain communications that cross species lines. We know they are willing at times to save humans from drowning the way we try to save starfish that wash up on the sea. This is the act of a species that can abstract their own intentions. They are curious. For all we know, they think of us as a wild-child species that doesn’t have serious language skills like theirs, but can be taught simple things. That is, until we catch or cage them.

Yes, what I’ve suggested is mostly pure presupposition, but we need to stop acting like we’re the only conscious beings on the planet. Dolphins are far from stupid, and we are — daily — only steps away from behaving as mere instinctual animals ourselves. If language is what sets us apart, isn’t it obvious that dolphins have language too and are capable of parsing serious abstractions because of it? If we cannot honor, much less recognize the rights and privileges of other radically different species on our own planet that may be as smart as we are, how can we possibly imagine that we are ready to communicate with species from another star, galaxy or dimension? How do we really measure the capacity for mutually-beneficial interspecies communication?

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