June 11, 2003
Humans and dolphins – taking each other seriously

Earlier this evening I watched Wildlife on One, the BBC TV birds and beasties show fronted by the saintly David Attenborough. Tonight, the subject was dolphins.

Dolphins and humans get along really well, both seeming to be fascinated by the other. Dolphins seem to want entertainment, and suggestions for things for them to do and copy, and an audience to show off to. (Dolphins are great mimics and natural performers.) And humans love that dopey grin that all dolphins have all over their faces, which makes dolphins seem to us smart but, crucially, also nice. Snakes they are absolutely not.

There were definite educational vibes here, in the sense that dolphins seem to be able to learn and to create. The humans were asking them questions and setting them little tasks, and the dolphins were doing very well. Not only could they do the (relatively) easy stuff, but they were coming up with clever and creative answers to trick questions or impossible tasks. They even know how to watch television. If Attenborough gave them a task by waving his arms about on a TV screen, they did it, just as if he was really there.

Dolphins, like us, are smart because they are social and because they have had a lot to gain from communication and from creativity. They chase after fishes not alone but in teams, and they often invent clever new ways to chase these fishes. Then they teach their children how the system works. Like us, dolphins have cultures, not just instincts. And when dolphins and humans get together, they immediately create a new shared culture, with both sides learning from each other, and both sides having a bundle of fun.

All of which got me to thinking: Why can't humans and human children get along like this? Why can't they be so obviously happy together and so obviously learning together?

Often of course, this is what happens between big humans and small ones. But on the whole, it doesn't. How come?

I don't want to romanticise just how clever dolphins really are. They are surely nearer to super-intelligent dogs than to humans, and one shouldn't confuse the fact that we react to them rather as we react to really nice people (because that's how they come across to us) with the notion that dolphins really are as clever as us. That three-year-old humans can often be rather harder to get along with than mature dolphins is not evidence that the dolphins are necessarily any smarter. Were humans to take againsts dolphins and to decide that they really, really liked how they tasted, and to start farming them, or if humans were to decide that dolphins posed a long-term threat to human domination of the planet and to decide to wipe them out, I wonder how clever the dolphins would prove themselves to be in the face of a menace like that.

Mercifully for the dolphins we aren't doing any that. As it is, not only do the dolphins entertain us by participating in David Attenborough programmes; they even help our fishermen by herding shoals of fish into their nets, in exchange for the left-overs. They've apparently been doing that for decades, at some fishing town somewhere.

So given that we don't seem to want to tyrannise over or otherwise torment our dolphin friends, how come the relationship between us is not just one of good intentions on both sides, but so enduringly harmonious and successful? What is being done right here?

I think there's another whole reason why humans and dolphins get along so well, besides the fact that we just do, which is that we each have our own homes, our own natural domains, and these are very different. We have our homes on land, and they have theirs at sea. What this means is that Mother Nature imposes a regime of Taking Dolphins Seriously on us, and Taking Humans Seriously on them. (I'm referring to the ideas of people like these people.)

What I mean by this is that when we are baffled or frustrated by the dolphins, given the rules we have imposed upon ourselves about not shooting them or something like that, what can we do? We can't make them go to bed early, or shout at them in a way they can't ignore, or otherwise torment them, the way we are all too tempted to torment human children. If we do anything like this, they can just swim away. If small humans run away from big humans in disgust, the big humans can chase after them and catch them, but humans just can't do that with dolphins. They can swim far better. And by the same token, if we make the dolphins angry with us, what can they do? Jump onto land and attack us? They can't. All they can do is swim away until they've calmed down. Nature imposes a regime of mutual civility.

It also helps that we aren't trying to bully the dolphins into becoming doctors or dentists or accountants and fussing about their exam results. Well, I expect some of the scientists get neurotic about things not unlike that, wanting their dolphins to be a credit to them and make them look good at their scientific conferences. But, see above, if the scientists do get above themselves like this, what can they do about it? The dolphins have the sea to protect them against all such foolishness.

The problem with small humans is that they don't have their sea. They live on the same land as us, and are defenceless against us. And we routinely do horrible things to them because … we can.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:35 PM
Category: Humans and animals