June 6, 2005


A little different, but stay with me here. According to CNN dolphins have been found using tools:

A group of dolphins living off the coast of Australia apparently teach their offspring to protect their snouts with sponges while foraging for food in the sea floor.

Researchers say it appears to be a cultural behavior passed on from mother to daughter, a first for animals of this type, although such learning has been seen in other species.

The dolphins, living in Shark Bay, Western Australia, use conically shaped whole sponges that they tear off the bottom, said Michael Kruetzen, lead author of a report on the dolphins in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

"Cultural evolution, including tool use, is not only found in humans and our closest relatives, the primates, but also in animals that are evolutionally quite distant from us. This convergent evolution is what is so fascinating," said Kruetzen.

Mom always says "Protect your snout." Words to live by.

This story reminded me of what could be my favorite Sci-Fi book of all time: David Brin's Startide Rising. Set in the far future, the premise is that with a mix of genetics and other tech humanity has "uplifted" chimps and dolphins to full-blown speech, tool use and intelligence. Dolphins have learned how to speak, fly spaceships and fight wars. The plot of "Startide Rising" follows the first fully dolphin-crewed starship and all the trouble she gets in.

The question is: If dolphins are already smart enough to use tools and it was possible to make them even smarter, should we? I'm talking some massive genetic tampering here. And intelligence is a mixed bag - sure you get poetry and medicine, but you also get high-tech ways to kill. Not to mention the stress.

So, what do you think? If we could, should we give this "gift" to our slick friends?


Tyler said...

Well lets say that we did give Bottlenose dolphins (the smartest of the whales and dolphins) high intelligence. Say we made 500 dolphins smart like us, as a test.

But what if one of those dolphins, lets call him the Rev. Snorky, sees it as cruel that we let the many other species of whales and dolphins live "like animals" in the sea, when we the "chosen dolphins" are now smart and have created a small civilization, because of the intelligence given to them by humans. Rev. Snorky demands that humans give his finned blow-hole brothers and cousins the "smart". So, we politically correct humans give in to these demands, because Rev. Snorky makes a good point. Now all the whales and dolphins have "the smart".

But then Rev. Snorky reads about all the millions of dolphins/whales caught in fisherman's nets, over the years, and even though that number has gone from millions to thousands, Rev. Snorky still deems this unacceptable. Then he starts demagoguing and caterwauling about reparations that need to be made by man to his blow-hole finned mammal cousins. Rev. Snorky now wants 40 salt water lake reserves and 2000 tuna for every living whale and dolphin. All the whales and dolphins rally around Rev. Snorky and pressure mounts on the humans.....

But we humans say "you've already got 'the smart', we can't give you all that!" Rev. Snorky accuses man of "keeping the dolphins down" and again the whales and dolphins rally. The humans think they are all crazy, but because of the fluke of plate tectonics, the whales and dolphins surround their "landed brothers". They launch a massive attack and defeat the humans. For the few that survive, they are caste off on island prisons, while the whales and dolphins give "the smart" to all the other ocean creatures and they take over the land, repeal all the greenhouse gas laws and accelerate the melting of the polar ice caps, there by flooding many costal areas, expanding there territory. They move inland establishing salt water ways and reserves inland on the continents.

But then the sharks start feeling oppressed because they now feel that the whales and dolphins didn't give them enough of "the smart". So they start a war but the whales and dolphins are clever, so they can match the sharks too....unfortunately the kill each other and all that remains are.....the tunas!

Let's keep "the smart" for humans....dear god, please.

Wingnut said...

Great Story! I won't even attempt to top that.

I believe that humans should not have the power to give "intelligence" to other species. After all, are we really that intelligent?

Laura said...

See, I'm not entirely certain that our unique ability to take a pretty fabulous and amazing world and twist and destroy it to suit our tiniest whims proves that we are the smarter species. It cannot be a sign of superior intelligence that we are willing to kill our fellow human beings, and not over important things like basic survival, but stupid, philosophical things that our "intelligence" has given us, like religion, for instance. I don't think we would be doing them any favors to give them our brand of "smart."

Dolphins are damn smart, and this CNN article is just further evidence of that. After all, dolphins communicate with one another. It's arrogance to assume that because they don't communicate with us that they are less intelligent. If I could, I wouldn't communicate with most humans, either. Furthermore, dolphins spend their time playing and eating and enjoying life while we humans spend our time fretting and being angry about the way things are...which is the more enjoyable way to live life?

So, maybe it's not the dolphins we need to worry about making smarter. Maybe we need to use all of the vast technology at out disposal to teach humans how to stop being arrogant, selfish bastards and learn to enjoy our lives and the world around us instead of trying to destroy it in pursuit of that all important profit.

Chris said...

A friend of mine is doing a PhD in child language aquisition, and she works with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. They do all of their language experiments both on young human children, and on primates. The aim is to try to compare the cultural and mental abilities and see how they influence the ability to communicate complex ideas. It's awesome, awesome stuff.