Tuesday, May 05, 2015

National Geographic series on dolphins: non-human people with an alien civilization in our oceans, with an "economy" based on "free fish" and absolute communism

National Geographic has started a three-part series “Understanding Dolphins: Intelligence, Captivity, Culture”, by Joshua Foer, with photographs by Brian Skerry, on page 30 of the May 2015 issue, with a bold cover title “Thinking Like a Dolphin: Understanding one of the smartest creatures on Earth”.
Dolphins are cetaceans, an unusual mammalian order that includes whales, and that broke off from land mammals as long as 95 million years ago. Orcas, or killer whales, are the largest and likely the smartest of all.
The reason for the breakoff seems to be, as expressed in one of Reid Ewing’s short films, “Free Fish”.  Food supply (perhaps as a result of a climate cycle) was more plentiful in the ocean than on land.  Dolphins innovated by evolution of their bodies rather than by making tools with their hands and brains.  Their brains support a complex sonar, which amounts to forming a biological Internet.  They are enormously communal and social creatures, where socialization replaces the need for money currency as in human society – but that’s also partly because food and shelter are “free” – a deep “political” point of Mr. Ewing’s 2012 films (for those familiar with them).
Dolphin brains are larger than human brains (usually) and have about the same processing power for problem solving.  Human innovation ability (in tool making) passed dolphin capacity about 5-10 million years ago, according to a chart in the article.  Dolphins have the ability to put half their brain to sleep at a time, a process we could barely fathom (maybe like coming in and out of a dream, like in the movie “Inception”).

The article asks not, “how smart are dophins” but “how are dolphins smart”?

The very long period of separate evolution, in a totally different environment (an aquarium of infinite volume and living space – the world’s oceans) evolved what amounts to an “alien civilization” in our oceans – maybe as close as we will come to meeting “ET” for quite a long time.
Dolphins apparently use their sonar to assign individuals names – the only other animal besides man to name individuals.  But we’re not sure if they have a grammatical language like ours (where maybe sonar signatures work somewhat like pictographs in Chinese or other Asian languages). 
The social structures are so strong that they are said to have a “distributed sense of self” (source, based on "Blackfish" movie here, Movies, July 29, 2013) and sometimes have mass beachings because one member gets in trouble.

The evolution of the dolphin, parallel to that of primates in a different environment, raises the idea that evolution of intelligent species may indeed be common on other suitable planets.  Imagine a society of dolphin-like creatures in the sub-ice oceans on Europa, Ganymede, or even Titan. It also raises profound ethical and perhaps legal questions.  Think about how we used whale oil for lights in the 19th century!  Does a creature with our level of intelligence deserve full legal rights?  What if a “Clark Kent” really did come here from another planet somehow.  Would he have the same rights as any human?  I know, some people claim that Mark Zuckerberg is an alien, who has conquered our planet peacefully by writing computer code, with Facebook giving us the functionality or an orca’s sonar.

We could mention the 1969 novel "The Day of a Dolphin", by Robert Merle ("A Sentient Animal" or "Un animal doue de raison"), adapted loosely into a movie in 1973 with George C. Scott, about a dolphin who, after training, is kidnapped and used in an assassination plot. I read the translated boo when in the Army. 

See also my main blog,  Dec. 20, 2014.

Update: June 15, 2015

The June 2015 issue of National Geographic has a followup article on p. 58, "Born to Be Wild", by Tim Zimmermann, said to be the second of a three-part series "Understanding Dolphins", "Captivity", showing programs to release them back into the wold.  

Update: July 20 2016

The July  2015 issue has part 3 on p. 80, "Feeding Frenzy", by Virginia Morell, explaining how matriarchal pods of orcas hunt for "free fish", train the young, and engage in "carousel feeding", even forcing sea lions to beach.

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