Ironically, our quest to “discover” extra-terrestrial intelligence would benefit greatly from first acknowledging the other forms of intelligence that exist right here on Earth. All we have to do is look (and listen) underwater.
We know whales and dolphins are smart. We know they can understand our language (though, as Carl Sagan once noted, we have yet to learn theirs). But now it seems that they may be able to actually talk– or at least mimic our conversations. A new study out today in Current Biology describes recordings of a captive Beluga whale, Noc, that sound exactly like, well, someone talking underwater.
In an interview with the authors, Huff Post notes that such findings do not mean we can expect to start fully communicating with whales. No in-depth conversations about what’s happening beneath the waves…yet. But the effort and exactitude displayed by Noc does make one wonder if such communication would be possible. And, even more importantly, it calls into greater question how we treat these most intelligent of species.
Continued research on the nature of intelligence, language, and complex systems provides more and more evidence that dolphins and whales are extraordinary animals, capable of complex relationships and communication. They can use tools, and demonstrate cunning and planning. They teach each other and help each other. And their brain size is second only to our own.
Just this year, a coalition of psychologists, animal behaviorists, neuroscientists, and philosophers (note-these aren’t hippy dolphin huggers), came together at AAAS and called for cetaceans to be declared “non-human persons,” entitled to the same rights as people: “We’re saying the science has shown that individuality – consciousness, self-awareness – is no longer a unique human property. That poses all kinds of challenges.” Namely, whale hunts are out. As are the ever-controversial practice of holding dolphins in captivity. The argument is: if we wouldn’t do that to a person, we shouldn’t do that to a cetacean.
It is a strong and seemingly radical shift to consider non-humans as entitled to the same rights as people have. But the evidence is there, growing stronger each year. Is it ethical to wait until we are utterly convinced? I am not so sure. If in another 100 years the science is undeniable, will we regret that we did not act sooner? Is there a moral obligation to act with the precautionary approach here? I think there might be. I haven’t yet signed the Declaration of Cetacean Rights, but Noc’s recent conversing has me one step closer. And to be honest, I am not sure I know what I am waiting for…