Home > Law and Public Policy > Dolphin Language Complexity Gets Attention of SETI

Dolphin Language Complexity Gets Attention of SETI

09-Apr-10 01:55 am EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

articipation in the You Tube comments section attached to a trailer for the award-winning documentary “The Cove” has resulted in my attention remaining focussed on this issue this past week.  (To me, there was something very appropriate about my experiences facing the semi-wilful ignorance of many commentators falling in the week leading up to Easter.  The words of Christ just prior to his execution kept appearing in my mind: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]) One of the more popular points of debate was centred, predictably, on a dispute about whether dolphins are sentient, and thus whether they should be considered persons under the law.  Unfortunately, the video comments section on You Tube leaves something to be desired – comment size is restricted to 350 characters or less so the expression of ideas occur in a rather staccato fashion without much pause for cultivation of ideas.  To complicate matters, the anti-dolphin arguments are coming almost entirely from Japanese commentators whose first language is, quite naturally, Japanese — a language I don’t speak, read or write.  I am unsure that my opponents can articulate their ideas as clearly as they might otherwise (in English), although certainly (with occasional aid from translation software) I get the main ideas being conveyed. Still, I have to say, there seems to be very high resistance to the idea that dolphins are people — almost all seem unwilling to look at any scientific evidence or even consider the notion.

Contrary to what the anti-dolphin bloc claims, I don’t believe they represent the majority of Japanese public opinion.  The Japanese public has been, until recently, largely uninformed on the issue prior to the release of “The Cove”. (In fact, part of the movie’s purpose was to serve to inform the Japanese public about what is really going on.)  Still, there is clearly an element in Japanese society that feels the whole issue of dolphin rights has been raised to further subjugate Japan’s interests and protect various foreign interests of common benefit to “western” nations.  Often such arguments digress into citations of western racism toward Japan (with any pro-dolphin argument automatically becoming racist and anti-Japanese) and/or conspiracy theories involving Sino-Euro-American collusion.

There are many aspects of this “reasoning’ which are problematic for dolphin rights:

  • Claiming that most (if not all) of the world is against you is the kind of nationalistic xenophobia that can quickly degenerate into extremism within Japan’s political establishment.  It really drives me crazy when anyone starts abusing sovereignty to defend unjust or immoral policy.  And it happens all the time.  A number of anti-dolphin responses tried to cite Canada’s poor treatment of its aboriginal population to claim that even if dolphins were people, I was in no position to lecture Japan on its treatment of them because of that stain on Canadian history.  The difference here is, of course, my nation’s treatment of aboriginals has improved markedly since the mid-20th century as we’ve gradually evolved as a society; to the point our social sensibilities reinforce legal guarantees of equality and treaty rights.  Japan has taken no action to protect dolphins in any meaningful sense since scientists announced that there was sufficient evidence to consider dolphins as people.

    View Taiji Town, Higashimuro District, Wakayama Prefecture in a larger map (Courtesy: Google Maps)
  • Another aspect that contributes difficulty is that there has, in fact, been a history of condescension and outright bullying of oriental powers, including Japan by European powers since the colonial period. And while the 20th century really saw the end of any foreign power holding significant political influence in Japanese affairs (notwithstanding the defeat of Japan in World War II and the use of nuclear weapons to force its prompt capitulation to the United States), there yet remains a quite understandable recalcitrance toward foreigners and Americans in particular meddling in what would otherwise be Japan’s sovereign right to manage its own natural resources.
  • Finally, there’s no easy way to lay these arguments to rest in the minds of those who begin subscribing to this brand of nationalism.  We’ve even begun to hear Taiji’s residents claiming the dolphin hunt is a feature of long-standing Japanese culture.  (Never mind the fact that the American TV show “Flipper” was largely responsible for kindling commercial interest in dolphins making this particular aspect of Japanese “culture” between 30 and 40 years old.  Even Canadians and Americans who have cultures only a few centuries old would consider it difficult to see a tradition that didn’t exist when their grandparents were born as a significant cultural element in the Japanese way of life, which exhibits traditions many thousands of years old.)

Perhaps most frustrating of all is the fact that these arguments are all entirely peripheral to the question of dolphins being sentient.  Japan often finds itself being more technologically advanced than any other nation on Earth (by as much as a decade ahead in some areas of scientific and technological advancement) and clearly has the technology and expertise to see what other scientists in the world can see: that the scientific evidence supports an argument for dolphins being sentient beings deserving of the same protections as humans under the law.

Articles supporting the argument for dolphin sentience aren’t hard to find, although the specific metrics to judge sentience vary as widely as the subjects for the research.  Interestingly, little research has been invested in actually achieving an understanding the grammar of dolphin languages.

Among the latest research on this subject is the discovery that the complexity of dolphin languages are comparable to that of humans.  The SETI Institute is a international non-profit organization (based in the United States) whose name is an acronym for the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence” and whose mandate is, as the name suggests, to determine whether sentient life exists elsewhere in the universe.  Technically speaking, dolphins fall outside its mandate, but a 2001 article in the SETI newsletter examined research in the area of information analysis and whether certain patterns of sounds emitted over a certain bandwidth could be characterized in terms of complexity and thus be converted into an indicator of intelligence or perhaps even sentience.

Of course, determining whether a particular emission of sounds exhibits linguistic properties as a means of deriving a probability of artificial source has obvious applications for SETI.  But in order to create a standardized process, SETI researchers are already proceeding on the assumption that humans aren’t the only intelligent life on this planet in hopes of some day finding intelligence elsewhere in the universe.

That assumption: dolphins are another form of intelligent and/or sentient life on Earth.

And when we start using dolphin language(s) as a benchmark for determining whether an intercepted signal from outer space is being sent from an alien civilization with intelligence and/or sentience comparable to that of humanity, what possible rationale could remain for us to consider dolphins as anything less than people themselves?

Categories: Law and Public Policy
  1. 28-Feb-11 10:24 am EDT at 10:24 am EDT

    You might be interested in the SETI Challenge: http://seti.matthen.com/


    • 12-Jul-11 03:41 pm EDT at 03:41 pm EDT

      I don’t generally approve SPAM comments….but in this case, I think it a worthwhile exception. 😉


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Terry Glavin


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