Sunday, December 27, 2015

We are not dolphins and they are not us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cetaceans, dolphins, toothed whales, conservation, mythology

The direction of Susan Casey's life changed one day during a swim in Honolua Bay. She found herself amidst a pod of spinner dolphins, and their interactions with her over the next ten minutes convinced her that they were much more than "smart sea creatures". She felt a kinship. For many people, similar feelings of kinship motivate much of the "swim with dolphins" industry, although a great many folks do it mainly because it is "in". Perhaps this, too, shall pass (One can only hope!).

For Ms Casey, she found herself embarking on a series of projects, in a more-or-less picaresque way, to learn more about these small, toothed whales and even to get involved in their conservation and preservation. The result is Voices in the Sea: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins.

Taking the events of the book out of order, we find that the earliest representations of dolphins, in Minoan frescoes and on pottery, has a worshipful air. From that day until this, various numbers of people have considered dolphins to be gods, or wise aliens, our hidden ancestors. The New Age movement abounds in "dolphin theology". But this is a rare, bright thread through the morass of human-dolphin interaction.

Dolphins and porpoises (the latter comprise seven or eight species of smaller toothed whales with shorter beaks or even rounded snouts; not nearly as "smiley" as the familiar Bottlenose Dolphin) are depicted as admirably peaceable, and perhaps they are. The largest dolphins, Orcas, or Killer Whales, have never been known to harm a human in the wild. The handful of cases in which an orca hurt or killed a person all occurred in "sea parks" such as Sea World, and the perpetrators are generally considered by experts to be insane from chronic mistreatment. Historical and modern stories abound of dolphins helping humans, sometimes even defending them from sharks. It appears that these creatures in general recognize their kinship with humans.

From the human side, darkness abounds. Those who consider us as descended from dolphins must consider most of us their evil twins. Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of dolphins of all kinds are killed by humans every year. Certain places Ms Casey visited, such as Taiji Cove in Japan and a couple of villages in the Solomon Islands, specialize in capturing and killing dolphins for meat and other products. Sometimes they also capture the "prettiest" ones alive and sell them to "dolphin parks". Such parks continue to proliferate; these days all the new ones are outside the US in areas of new luxury such as the UAE. The trade needs to go on steadily to meet the demand, mostly because the average time a captive dolphin lives is about three years, and most expire in the first year. A few hardy ones may live much longer, but none approaches the 50-to-100-year life span of a wild dolphin.

I have thought a great deal about the intelligence of dolphins. They have huge brains, with Encephalization Quotients of about 4, compared to 7 or so for humans. But I calculated elsewhere that if you discount the layer of blubber, which can account for a quarter of a dolphin's weight, the EQ of a Bottlenose Dolphin is at least 6. However, sheer brain volume, even on an allometric scale such as EQ, is but part of the story.

About 6% of the human brain's cortex is devoted to decoding vision. Vision is a very efficient sense. The primary receptor is a pair of thin cellular films, our retinas, each of which would flatten out to cover about 2/3 of a business card. The rest of the non-brain ocular apparatus is a pair of "cameras", AKA our eyes, and the attached muscles and nerves. Another percent goes to hearing, and smaller proportions to our other senses. So we have about 90% of our cerebral cortex available for other functions. Dolphin brains have much larger auditory areas, presumably because of their echolocation skill. The areas of the brain devoted to their sonic senses are about 20 - 40 times as large as the entire human auditory cortex and related areas. That means about one-third of a dolphin brain is used for sonic decoding. It seems logical, then, that the "effective EQ" of a dolphin is much less than the simple calculation would imply, perhaps closer to 3. That puts a dolphin just above the top of the range for chimpanzees.

The above is but one illustration that a dolphin's world is radically different from ours. It also gives me a more satisfactory feeling about the seeming naiveté of dolphins. Just think, if they really were as smart as we are, and could communicate as effectively as we can, or as effectively as many people think they do, and further if they thought more like we think, could the slaughter continue? Maybe at some one time, a pod could be driven into Taiji Cove, taken captive and slaughtered there. There would be no second time. They would station lookouts and avoid entering the cove, or even counterattack and drag a bunch of the people to the depths to expire there. Instead, they behave in ways no human group would behave, and are thus "tricked" and caught and slaughtered year after year.

I don't have much stomach for going on. There are 36 or 37 species of dolphins and 7 or 8 of porpoises. Given the size of the oceans, that corresponds well to the 4 species of great apes and 17 species of lesser apes (Gibbons). Dolphins are not the "people of the sea", they are more analogous to oceanic Chimps and Orangutans. Think of Chimps with sonar…or radar.

But this doesn't make it moral to exploit them, or to wantonly cast them aside. Morality is not measured by whether you kill your enemies, but by how you treat the helpless. Every scripture of every religion demonstrates that we usually choose immorality or amorality over morality in nearly everything, and at best just "paper over our image" with a garnishing of philanthropy. Sometimes. Most folks forego the philanthropy part, except to toss a quarter into a Salvation Army bucket sometime during Christmas Week, or a similar token gesture in other cultures.

It is no surprise then, that dolphins and their kin remain a part of the Sixth Extinction that the human race is carrying out.

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