I am now going to talk about prosthetics, dolphins, marine biology, philosophy, ethics, animal behavior, architecture, biotechnology, and movies all in the same post. And it will even be connected and flow well. *flexes fingers*
Dolphin Tale was probably one of the best movies I've seen all year. Heck, all my life. Truly touching, and I felt more emotional involvement towards the dolphin than I do towards, well, most other things besides my friends and systematic slaughter. When a movie can make that happen in an hour and a half or so, you know you've got a good movie. The dolphin and the two children were the best actors of all, and Winter played herself in the film- she does exist, and Clearwater exists too, though I don't know if there were two small children (might have been, it didn't require too much suspension of belief to get the male kid in the plot). I might someday be lucky enough to meet Winter; I can probably convince my parents to take spring or fall break to go down and visit.
But it wasn't only the plot that fascinated. The technology behind the artificial tail did too. The polymer created was simply brilliant, and the man who invented that (it was a real invention) deserves fame and glory, something which I'm sure he has among material scientists. But what interested me more was the engineering part- that is to say, the method by which joints and such were put together. The joints, I imagine, were a fairly simple affair, at least the basic idea. And prosthetics don't always require a great deal of engineering skill- a wooden leg is technically a prosthetic. But creating joints that will move smoothly through water and stand up to heavy use can't be that simple.
In the film, a legend is retold- don't know if it actually was one or not- about people who crossed a rainbow bridge but had their children turn into dolphins when they fell off- in otherwords, dolphins are human. I don't know about human, but they certainly are people. One of their number was taught to act, they have learned how to communicate with humans, they have names that they call themselves by1
... quite incredible, really. Fact is, dolphins are quite similar to humans, the most similar of all animals. You see, humans are unique in their contradictions- you can't really come up with an adjective to describe us. Sure, we're 'warlike and aggressive' but we also have many members who are peaceful and outright pacifistic. We aren't, as Star Trek would have us think, a 'fundamentally curious race' because many people are content to be live with a highly limited knowledge of the world. At best, you can give overall tendencies to human behavior.
Dolphins are the same way. A lot of people think of dolphins in one of two ways: happy playful hippies (without the buses and tie-dye t-shirts) or malevolent calf-killing serial-rapist sex maniacs (personally, I think that 'sex maniac' under some circumstances belongs in the 'happy playful hippy' category, but whatever). But neither view is true; they both are, and as a result, both aren't. While dolphins may kill for fun in some cases, they also have close family ties. While they may commit rape2
, sex for them appears to be a way of reinforcing social bonds3
. While they may sometimes be hostile4
, they also are capable of acts of alturism5
. They are just like us- and that means that they are beings capable of moral thought, because one of the things that, in my book, is a sign of sapience is alturism, and by that I mean willing to sacrifice time and energy for things that may well not bring an immediate reward. Dolphins have that.
I don't pretend to know is in a dolphin's mind. What I think of, and venerate so highly, as alturism, may be nothing more than some sort of play, in which case it is no more alturism than a shark instinctively biting at something and freeing someone from entanglement. But I can guess, and I think that dolphins perform alturistic acts because they see it as simply the right thing to do, as do people. Because of this distinct possibility, I should it think it best to err on the side of caution and assume the best (though I can understand those who plan for the worst).
This raises the moral quandry of captivity, something which many are opposed in all cases. I am personally not, on the grounds that I have no problems with placing someone in a hospital for treatment or an assisted-living center if incapable of surviving or thriving in the outside world. For some dolphins in captivity, this is the case; disabilities in the wild typically result in the death of an animal and we have the ability to prevent that. Out of few options, it is the best.
The same logic does not hold, however, with dolphins in general. Captive dolphins aren't easily released in all cases, though. If a human was captive-bred and didn't have the education of skills required to make a living, and for whatever reason they couldn't be taught, then many people would find keeping them in an environment where they are restricted but remain alive the most moral option. In fact, human society already does this with people with developmental disabilities. Captive-bred dolphins could be thought of as having a developmental disability if there's no way to teach them to survive in the wild.
Fortunately, there is a potential way out of this. Given that dolphins have displayed, at the very least, 'signatures' as well as the ability to learn some American sign language, it is likely that we could establish a common language based, quite possibly, on a system of sound glyphs (specifically, CymaGlyphs)6
. I suggest that the best way for first linguistical contact with dolphins would be to try and figure out how they associate different glyphs with different objects and concepts, if they do at all, and if not develop a system of glyphs that they don't use for the purpose of expressing highly complex ideas. Artificial glyph generators could be affixed to the hulls of boats and used to project glyphs, and receivers could be used to 'hear' what the dolphins are saying back (if they say back anything).
Once a common language was found, it could be encouraged to spread by culture (which dolphins already have), and then working out what to do with captive dolphins could be made relatively simple. This approach, of course, would require a significant amount of work. Until then, no healthy dolphins should be captured from the wild unless there is literally no other choice except to let them die (for example, if a nuclear bomb was dropped on an area of ocean and the dolphins couldn't be relocated).
I anticipate many potential positive effects of communications between dolphins and humans. Dolphins dive deep on a regular basis, and can be presumed to know much about the topography and ecology of the deeper areas of the ocean, and they could also assist with conservation of coral reefs. They provide a completely different perspective on matters of philosophy. Larger whales, if communications with them were also established, could haul cargo. Dolphinat of dolphins tends to be very very open, and while we cannot create an open ocean, zoological parks and aquariums have the capacity to create sufficiantly large enclosures for dolphins- or, rather, if they don't, they have no business keeping dolphins. In short, I expect high standards, and any exhibit I design for a zoo will fulfill them. Perhaps I'll eventually create a description of a good dolphin enclosure.
1. V. M. Janik, L. S. Sayigh, and R. S. Wells. "Signature whistle shape conveys identity information to bottlenose dolphins." PNAS
vol. 103 no. 21 (2006): 8203-8297. PNAS
. Web. 19 October 2011.
2. Scott, Erin M., Janet Mann, and Janet J. Watson-Capps. "Aggression in bottlenose dolphins: evidence for sexual coercion, male-male competition, and female tolerance through analysis of tooth-rake marks and behaviour." Behavior
142 (2004): 21-44. Web Archive. Web. 19 October 2011.
3. Frustatingly, at the present time I am unable to find a citation, though I remember hearing it via a documentary that was not the stereotypical 'dolphins are fluffy' kind. So take with a grain of salt.
4. Johnson, George. "Is Flipper a Senseless Killer?." ON SCIENCE
. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 October 2011. <http://www.txtwriter.com/onscience/articles/flipper.html>.
5. "NZ dolphin rescues beached whales." BBC News. N.p., 12/3/2008. Web. 4 Oct 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7291501.stm>
while I question some of the beliefs of the people operating the site, it is logical to conclude that dolphins could create a glyph language out of sound
Tags: movies, biology, biomechanics, prosthetics, ethics, dolphins,interspecies