Norwegian Petroglyph of Dolphin, ca. 3,000BC (?) Norwegian Petroglyph of Dolphin, ca. 3,000BC (?)

Fresco of Dolphines from the bronze age excavations of Akrotiri on the greek island of Santorini

Recently we listened to a podcast, Radiolab’s “Home Is Where Your Dolphin Is,” about dolphins and the iterations of scientific investigations about their intelligence based in trying to connect “linguistically.” Pretty interesting (for an infotainment show like this).

In the first segment about a woman who lived with a dolphin (called Peter), setting up house and even manipulating him to orgasm when he got uncontrollably randy (!), in an attempt to communicate with him by teaching him English (can you believe the hubris of humans?)–the dolphin actually begins to mimic sounds and seems (on the program) to really be attempting to “inhabit” the world with the human.

But the part of special note here (and this may be scientific “old news”) was that the investigator claimed the dolphin spent a lot of time exploring her hands and trying to understand the “spaces” in them–sonar-ing her hands and putting his beak between her fingers.

The question is asked at the beginning, is dolphin intelligence a development of the same magnitude as human intelligence, but markedly different due to the human “evolving” by the use of hands?

When we imaging “fish people” or mermaids or aquatic gods…they may have tail fins and no legs, but they always have hands and they always make stuff (underwater cities).

Aside: I thought it was amusing that Disney’s “Little Mermaid” Ariel is intrigued by a fork and instead of seeing it as a tool for eating she uses it to comb her locks. How exactly do “mer-people” eat if they look like Disney’s mer-people? They’re human with tail fins instead of legs. Same jaw, etc. They’d use their hands and make tools also.

But consider the absolute inability of the human mind to conceive of a world that contains no “making.” Our minds are built by the building faculty. By manipulating our world with our hands. And as far as I can make sense of it, language follows upon this. That is, there may be language about “living”–making noises to indicate emotion, or warning (creaturely expression)–that we might share with other animals, but until we start cooperating in order to alter our natural habitats, I can’t imagine anything but rudimentary declaratives. I have done ZERO research into this. I’m simply asserting this as fitting with my own understanding of hands and words.

A later segment in the Radiolab program, “What Do Dolphins Talk About,” follows a group trying to use computers to mimic dolphin sounds and track patterns in order to create a shared language. That seems a step in the right direction.

But consider what kind of conversation you might have? What can dolphins care about the idle “profundities” of human philosophical and scientific construction? I can only imagine them screaming at us constantly to stop doing whatever it is we’re doing.

What do we talk about but our talking selves, our making selves? There is a famous Raymond Carver story (or maybe just the titles of his minimalist stories are famous–what else can you remember of them–and I’m talking about you, too, Lydia Davis), “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that strikes me as ultimately only asserting that we talk about nothing–that we maneuver expectation and desire via language acts.

A dolphin must eat, mate, avoid predation, and play. Who doesn’t imagine that dolphins have fun as a number one, non-surviving-necessity, priority in their lives? (Sure, I’m failing to really try to get at “dolphin” thinking, but I have no idea how to do it. Does Melville really understand the whale? No, but he knows that is a futility.)

Again, I am speaking having done zero investigation, though I did read Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos in the late 80s.

Norwegian Petroglyph of Dolphin, ca. 3,000BC (?)

Norwegian Petroglyph of Dolphin, ca. 3,000BC (?)

What do we chitter about when we chitter about eating fish?

I wonder if music really is the only path to human quiescence? To have an ambition to play or create beauty without assessment or judgment (that is not really even properly an ambition), is to not seek a built-ness; to seek expression in non-mechanistic ways (I do not consider musical instruments machines UNLESS they are attached to a power source other than the human), is probably only possible in the art that is music.

One cannot be a poet, painter, sculptor without the gradations that lead to a “built” conception that seeks out something other than the creation itself. I suppose this is an argument finally about “representation” which seems to me to lead to attempting replication and replacement–to surpassing other representations. Emerson offers this fundamental understanding of the human intellectual ambition that he centers in the visual (an “eye” for an “I”). I think he says all he needs to say in the first two paragraphs of the essay, “Circles.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced, in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace; that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

This fact, as far as it symbolizes the moral fact of the Unattainable, the flying Perfect, around which the hands of man can never meet, at once the inspirer and the condemner of every success, may conveniently serve us to connect many illustrations of human power in every department.

This is our dilemma and that last sentence pretty much puts paid to the idea of human “dominion.”

Can you hear the chitters and whistles?

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

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