Dolphin talk and human credulity



It appears to have been just bad luck that one British newspaper, The Independent, chose April 1 as the day to publish James Vincent’s science report about a significant animal-to-human communication breakthrough.

I hope it worries animal researchers at least as much as it worries me that I had to do some reading around and cross-checking to be sure that the report wasn’t an Onion-style April Fool’s Day hoax. But I found that The Daily Mail had already reported on the same finding on March 27, so I’m quite sure both newspapers are serious.

I have an open mind regarding the communicative abilities of nonhuman species, and enormous respect for what many animals can do. Don’t let Language Log posts such as this one or this one mislead you on that score: The animals I am being sarcastic about there are journalists. The creatures whose stupidity and docility worries me most belong to the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. They seem not nearly sapiens enough when it comes to stories about the languages of other species. People know so little about language and how it works that they are prepared to believe almost anything about animal talk.

Dolphins are by all accounts smart, curious, friendly, playful, and even empathic. No wonder people fall in love with them. Denise Herzing, whose work was being reported in the Independent and Daily Mail stories, has been spending months every year living with one population of dolphins for more than a quarter of a century. She recently gave an impressive TED talk on her work, revealing that she has to live on a large modern catamaran moored in the clear blue water of a bay in the Bahamas for five months each year. She bravely endures that hardship for the sake of scientific research.

What she is trying to do is to teach dolphins certain predefined “words” (whistled tunes that are easy for them to produce but not already in their natural repertoire), and to get them to use these “words” meaningfully. With a small device that can be carried easily on the arm of a human swimmer she can broadcast certain specific whistle sounds over a loudspeaker, and transduce those sounds to synthesized English word utterances when they are detected on the hydrophone.

One special whistle has been defined by Herzing and her team to mean “sargassum” (that’s the name of a type of floating seaweed that the dolphins like to play with). When the transducer box detects the sound of that whistle it generates a pronunciation of the word sargassum (in Herzing’s voice, since it was used to provide the basic parameters for the speech synthesis).

The breakthrough is that during one swim last August, one dolphin finally uttered this particular whistle sound, and the transducer box duly sent the sound Herzing’s voice saying “sargassum” to the loudspeaker. Interspecies linguistic communication dawns!

Only it doesn’t. This was an unexplained isolated imitation of a particular whistle that humans had been trying to teach the dolphins for some time. It was interpreted by eager humans as a noun, but there is no evidence to show that the dolphin intended to point out the presence of seaweed or request a piece of seaweed.

Herzing is a talented observer of dolphin behavior, and I’m not knocking her research. (She does allow herself a bombastic remark at the end of her TED talk about the prospect of sharing thoughts with members of another species, but I’m sure I’d be tempted toward flowery overstatement if I was wrapping up a TED talk with the audience in the palm of my hand.)

And I’m not going to rant about the zany newspaper headlines that her announcement provoked: “Scientists working on human-to-dolphin translator report first successful interaction”; “Dolphin whistle translated by computer for the first time”; “Talk with a dolphin via underwater translation machine.” Goofy talk, yes; but newspapers always go nuts over anything relating to animal communication or Miley Cyrus.

I even managed to control my alarm at the title of New Scientist magazine’s editorial (May 9, 2011) greeting the first reports of Herzing’s underwater whistle transducer: “The implications of interspecies communication.”

What really does alarm me is the credulity of our own species. Humans, even those with university degrees, generally have so little understanding of what their own linguistic abilities are like—so little appreciation of the complexities of phonetics, phonology, word-formation, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics—that they are prone to believe almost anything they are told about talking with the animals. They confuse imitation of isolated words with the infinitely more sophisticated business of using a language. They equate persuading one dolphin to produce one occurrence of a special human-prompted whistle with the fantasy that dolphins have mastered language and started communicating their thoughts to us linguistically.

To believe any such thing, on Herzing’s evidence, you would have to be catastrophically ignorant of linguistics. But unfortunately most people are.