Saturday, February 27, 2010
The language of dolphins
If you search for "dolphin speech" online, you can pull up some interesting articles, like this one from the blog dichotomistic, about humans teaching dolphins a human-devised system of squeaks and whistles. It makes me wonder why we have just assumed that dolphins should learn to speak with us, rather than humans trying to learn the language of dolphins.
Apparently, I'm not the only one pondering this question. I read an interesting article (this is a .pdf file) in a recent issue of University of Chicago's Medicine on the Midway, describing the work of two student researchers who were studying dolphin speech. According to the article, each dolphin has its own unique, identifying whistle. Other whistles are shared between the dolphins and are used repeatedly in the same situations, a finding echoed in another, similar study in Australia.
So, what does this mean? We know that dolphins use echolocation. Do dolphins also have a full-fledged, evolved language? It appears that they might. Given that our current understanding of dolphin speech is more limited than an infant trying to learn to talk, I think we should give dolphins the benefit of the doubt. Are there dialects in dolphin language, as suggested by a comment to this article? Can we ever hope to understand dolphin speech? If we can't, how does that reflect on humans and our so-called superior intelligence?
Scientists are still in disagreement about exactly how intelligent dolphins are and whether findings like these should affect our treatment of them. Many feel that dolphins are the world's second-smartest mammal, but there are dissenters who argue that dolphins are relative dim-wits. Animal-rights groups and some scientists ponder whether dolphins be treated as "non-human persons", as proposed by this article from the Times Online. What do you think?
Photo credit: justthatgoodguyjim via flickr // CC BY 2.0