Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dolphins and consciousness

(mobile readers please scroll down to read the post)

Here is a link to an amazing new report on research that has been ongoing since 1984, recording the vocalizations of individual bottlenose dolphins (and including recordings going back to 1975).  Published on February 20, 2013 in the online Proceedings of the Royal Society B [Biology] and entitled "Vocal copying of individually distinctive signature whistles in bottlenose dolphins,"  the report demonstrates that bottlenose dolphins appear to develop their own signature whistle patterns, and that the animals will call out to other bottlenose dolphins with whom they have close relationships using the signature pattern of the other dolphin!

This is an astonishing discovery.

The report states:
Bottlenose dolphins produce a large variety of narrow-band frequency-modulated whistles and pulsed sounds for communication [12]. As part of their repertoire, each individual also develops an individually distinctive signature whistle [13,14] that develops under the influence of vocal learning [1517]. Individuals listen to their acoustic environment early in life and then develop their own novel frequency modulation pattern or contour for their signature whistle [15]. The result is a novel and unique modulation pattern that identifies the individual even in the absence of general voice cues [18].
The report goes on to explain that, while rare, instances in which other dolphins "copied" the signature whistle pattern of another dolphin have been observed in enough instances to suggest that it is not caused by chance. The researchers explain, "It has been argued that copying of signature whistle types is equivalent to addressing other individuals."  

The authors studied the dolphins extensively to try to determine whether the whistle copying was for affiliative (what we might call "friendly" or "bonding") purposes, aggressive, or deceptive purposes.  The research strongly suggests that this whistle-copying is affiliative.  For example, the researchers write, "The results of a permutation test clearly showed that signature whistle copying occurred between closely affiliated pairs of animals (p = 0.0006)."  They also state, "Frequent copying of signature whistles would therefore render the identity information of the whistle unreliable. The rare copying of signature whistles may, however, be particularly suited to addressing close associates [2325]."

Here is a Discovery News article which discusses the report, entitled "Dolphins call each other by name."

The implications of this report are profound.  It clearly indicates individual consciousness among these dolphins.  Not only are the dolphins aware of their own identity, crafting "their own novel frequency modulation pattern," but they are also aware of the specific identity of their fellow dolphins, sometimes calling out the name of another with whom they are closely bonded.  In one case, the report describes two bonding dolphins calling out one another's whistle patterns in a back-and-forth manner, with one dolphin doing so 13 times and the other 11 times!

While the report's authors declare that this self-naming behavior and bonding behavior is the result of Darwinian natural selection, that is complete conjecture on their part (based, of course, upon their assumptions about the origin of dolphins).  No evidence is presented in the report that dolphin species were observed before they evolved this behavior, and then were watched as they did develop this behavior (with those that did not develop it being killed off by natural selection prior to passing on their DNA).  Thus, the report's author's are engaging in conjecture when they write:
Bottlenose dolphins live in fluid fission–fusion societies with animals forming a variety of different social relationships [20]. This social organization, coupled with restrictions in underwater vision and olfaction, has led to natural selection favouring designed individual signature whistles [12,14] instead of relying on the by-product distinctiveness of voice features [19].
It is possible that there are other explanations for this behavior besides "natural selection favouring" it.   For example, it is possible that consciousness originates somewhere outside of physical beings, and that our brains transmit consciousness, in a way analogous in some manner to a radio or television which transmits a signal that originates elsewhere.  This possibility has been discussed in earlier posts such as this one, which also pointed to a fascinating examination of the topic by Chris Carter entitled "Does Consciousness Depend on the Brain?"  

In that case, as some have suggested, animals have varying capacities of transmitting consciousness, some possessing brains that are more capable of rendering a "clear transmission," and some less capable of doing so.  Dolphins may possess brain structures that are capable of channeling a very high level of consciousness, such that they actually give themselves names and know the names of their loved ones.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that consciousness does exist outside of the brain, and that it does continue on even after the physical death of the body, just as the destruction of an individual television or an individual radio does not destroy the radio or television broadcast that was being received by that device.  Other posts that have explored this subject include "One of the most famous NDEs ever caught on film," "The ideology of materialism," and "A heartfelt portrait of John Blofeld from Daniel P. Reid."  

In fact, it is probably safe to say that there is at least as much evidence for this hypothesis than for the natural selection hypothesis, and that we have just as much right to conclude that dolphins vocalize the names of themselves and others because they are intelligent beings manifesting consciousness than because natural selection favored the survival of those who designed signature whistles.

Further, because dolphins have been known to surf, which is one of the highest activities that a conscious being can participate in, I think that we can argue that this hypothesis has a lot going for it.

I have surfed with dolphins before myself (or rather, I have been joined by dolphins while surfing), and had them playfully swim right under my board at high speeds in groups of three, and I can attest that they project a powerful sensation of their own consciousness (as do many other animals).  This study adds a whole new dimension to that evidence, and it should really cause all of us to reflect on the implications of this new information.

For example, in light of this new knowledge, is it really ethical to keep dolphins in captivity against their will?

How about training them to perform in live performances or play parts in television shows and movies?  Or conscripting them against their will to serve in the military?  Or killing them for food?

Thinking about the fact that dolphins appear to "give themselves names," it seems that doing violence against dolphins really highlights what Simone Weil wrote in her treatise against violence, that it "turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing."  It turns, as she says, a "somebody" into "nobody" -- it robs its victims (and ultimately its perpetrators as well) of their personhood -- the very thing that an individual name represents! 

This subject really points to the violence that is perpetrated against many other animals under various excuses, all of which were condemned by many ancient philosophers, including Plutarch and Ovid.  There is evidence that many other species of animals manifest consciousness to varying degrees (see for instance "Moving report of elephants mourning . . . ").  In light of that thought, should we be disturbed by the horrendous treatment meted out to animals destined for slaughter and conversion into food products?

This new information about dolphins who give themselves individual names is truly amazing, and the researchers who brought it to our attention should be commended for doing so.  It also appears to have many important ramifications which are worth pondering deeply.