Years ago when I was in the Navy, whenever we pulled out of port I’d watch dolphins glide along in front of our ship jumping out of the water in spectacular fashion. Their sheer power and beauty are difficult to describe unless you’ve witnessed them first-hand. As I’d watch them swim along in such a graceful manner, I’d find myself wondering what they thought of our ship and if they were self-aware or could communicate with one another. At the time I knew little about dolphins (I’m still learning today) but I couldn’t help thinking to myself that these beautiful creatures are probably much more intelligent than we are.
As I monitor the important work being done to find extraterrestrial intelligence today, I often consider how we might communicate with ETI if/when we do finally connect. Pioneering work done over the past decades to develop an understanding of dolphin communication may serve as a guide when the time comes.
In 1961, the publication of Man and Dolphin (written by John Lilly) brought dolphins into our public consciousness and inspired a great deal of speculation regarding the degree of their intelligence and the sophistication of their language. Many people believed that a time would come when humans could engage in meaningful and even philosophical conversations with these amazing creatures. Numerous experiments were conducted over the years that followed, many of them designed to test dolphins’ abilities to follow simple language and signal commands. Oftentimes the dolphins would not only perform the desired tasks, but would do so with a certain flair and obvious sense of humor.
One of the observations made by scientists early on was that each individual dolphin develops a unique whistle, or call, through which it identifies itself within a group. Many people perceived this trait as evidence that these creatures possess a sophisticated social order and understanding. After all, each dolphin must not only create a personal signature sound, but also remember and distinguish between the signature sounds of every other member of a group.
Dolphins produce a wide array of sounds aside from their distinguishing whistles. These range from lower-pitched grunts to the clicks that they employ for echolocation (a highly developed ability that enables them to locate even tiny objects underwater while blindfolded). Many scientists have hypothesized that these diverse sounds actually comprise an extensive form of language that dolphins use to communicate with one another. The general demeanor of these creatures – oftentimes playful, humorous, and responsive – suggests that they could be capable of such a level of comprehension.
Oftentimes, the conclusions drawn from experiments involving animals end up being misleading for one simple reason: we humans want animals to exhibit intelligence according to our own ideas of what intelligence is. Many animal communicators have expressed the opinion that we’d be better off letting other creatures of this world speak to us in their own fashion, rather than trying to coax them into imitating human expression. Dolphins have often been encouraged to mimic human traits and behaviors. Many will even occasionally parrot certain words of our languages. But we remain unaware of the true depth of comprehension that dolphins possess. At best, we can only gauge it intuitively.
Dolphins aren’t equipped with the kinds of limbs necessary for creating tools, buildings, and machines like humans are. Perhaps their very physical makeup makes them more disposed towards communicating with each other in elaborate ways (some scientists have surmised that dolphin “speech” may consist of as many as 60,000 “words”, or more). We may be able to more fully grasp the intricacies of their minds if we surrender our own ideas about what intelligence should be used for and instead, observe how these creatures express themselves in their native ways. Until that time comes, we most likely will continue to debate which is the smarter animal – human or dolphin. My money is riding on the latter…
Vincent M. Janik (2013). Cognitive skills in bottlenose dolphin communication. Trends in Cognitive Science, 17 (4), 157-159 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.02.005
Connor, R. C. (2007). Dolphin social intelligence: complex alliance relationships in bottlenose dolphins and a consideration of selective environments for extreme brain size evolution in mammals. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 362 (480), 587-602 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1997