Dolphins are nifty — but not magical

I saw this, and thought others would find it interesting too.

… said one of the phoneticians at my alma mater. It’s a collection of rather fantastic claims about “dolphin language”, mixed with breathless praise for their affirming-the-consequent “Aqua Thought Foundation” (slogan might as well be “we already know dolphins are better than us”) and obfuscatory invented technical language (“bio-cymatic imaging”).  The most interesting result, though, is a claim, that I can’t really evaluate, to have discovered “Sono-Pictorial Exo-holographic Language” in dolphins.

I have to confess that I am extremely skeptical of the claims made here — most directly, I think that it might be the case that “sono-pictorial exo-holographic” images are in fact transmissible from dolphin to dolphin: that is, one dolphin is capable of “replaying” to another dolphin a (sonic) image.

What these researchers claim that the dolphins do in these experiments — and this is reserving any attempt to evaluate their methods critically — is “repeat” to other dolphins the (sonic) image of a particular toy so that dolphin #2 can win the game and get treats. This is actually really neat — when you have a sophisticated active sensing device built in to your sensing apparatus, one really clever use of it is to “play back” images you think your neighbors might be interested.  This may or may not be language: we can certainly imagine that a chameleon could have some kind of sign-like language encoded on the mutable colors of its skin, but the fact of a chameleon — or an octopus being able to perform mimesis does not require that it must have language.

Humans don’t have an active-sensing apparatus, besides touch. Our useful inter-human communication language media are mostly passive (vision and hearing being the big two). Arguably, once language itself is present, it can be an active sensing tool: we can share information and receive it using language.

Saying “dolphin echolocation allows mimesis, because it is an active sensing apparatus” is not equivalent to “dolphin echolocative mimesis is language”, any more than saying “we can use language as an active sensing apparatus [e.g. by asking a friend what’s behind that rock], so active sensing is the defining property of language.”

At best, it points to the difficulty of trying to know the world from a sensory environment deeply different from our own. Helen Keller’s own (assisted) writing about the difficulty of language use until she found active-sensing touch-based-sign is only one example of how different the world is when your sensory apparatus doesn’t line up with the standard H. sapiens model. Perhaps the echolocative humans we know about would have more useful perspective than guessing about whether mimesis proves dolphins have language.

I think I’m most frustrated by the Aqua Thought people’s breathless insistence on “language!” when really, they’d have a fantastic scientific and xenobiological result, just from saying “dolphins ‘play back’ images they have perceived to other dolphins.”  I know their goals are probably somewhere between the Uplift and the Great Ape protection movements — and I have some sympathy for both — but they’re doing themselves no favors by overpitching the argument from mimesis into one about language.

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