Interesting article here on a cetacean researcher working on the problem of dolphin-human communication.
It’s especially interesting in that the researcher seems to have an extremely solid grounding in the traditional principles of ethology rather than having a fluffier approach- part of her research involves creating and indexing a massive database of video footage of dolphins engaging in specific behaviors in specific contexts- and that she seems to be approaching the ways dolphins already communicate with each other with an eye to breaking down its exact mechanics in a way humans can understand and dissect for what is relevant to them, rather than focusing on object-symbol associations exclusively.
To me, the real meat of the matter is distilled from the following excerpt:
Up to now, dolphins have shown themselves to be adept at responding to human prompts, with food as a reward for performing a task. “It’s rare that we ask dolphins to seek something from us,” Dr. Herzing said.
But if she is right, the dolphins will seek to communicate with humans, and the reward will be social interaction itself, with dolphins and humans perhaps developing a crude vocabulary for objects and actions. …..
“The key is going to be coming up with a system in which the dolphins want to communicate,” said Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi. “If they don’t care, it won’t work.”
Dr. Kuczaj developed an early two-way communication system while working at a captive lab in Orlando in the late 1980s. The system relied on visual symbols, not sound, and used a large stationary keyboard that proved to be too cumbersome.
But he says that the effort gave him confidence that such a system could work and that Dr. Herzing is “definitely the closest to getting there.”
and highlighted by this quote from the end of the article:
And while other researchers praise her work, they point out that of dolphin-human communication has often fallen short of expectations.
“It depends on what you mean by communicate,” Dr. Kuczaj said. “I can communicate with my dog, too. But do I have conversations with my dog? Well, if I do they’re very one-sided.
We already communicate with animals. Anyone that owns a domestic animal more complex than a goldfish communicates with it on a fairly regular basis whether they’re aware of it or not, sometimes quite elaborately as tends to be the case with dogs and horses. In order for animal-human communication to take place, both parties must first realize that there’s enough going on behind the eyes of the other to make communication a possibility, and second have enough common interest for there to be something relevant at hand to communicate.
Someone with a pet dog may only cover ground like meeting basic needs, accepting or rejecting requests, and things like “someone’s at the door”; someone who hunts with their dog might pass a lot more information, like “I can smell something alive over here”, or “I can see something crouching over there”, or “trail’s gone cold”, or “keep working”, and likewise for people doing any more advanced work with a dog, like search and rescue or livestock herding. It’s not a conversation as such, but it is ongoing communication for mutual ends.
The problem of communicating with a cetacean isn’t actually the intelligence of the cetacean; we already know that many cetaceans, dolphins included, are extremely intelligent and socially complex in a way we can at least somewhat relate to, and that they suspect the same of us. We have that figured out with apes and to a lesser extent parrots, which is why all the language experiments that have yielded interesting results have come from them.
The problem is that they are large seagoing predators, and we are small terrestrial omnivores, and our points of common experience exist almost solely in that social interaction. We can teach a dolphin to punch symbols to get fish or a bellyrub, but we can teach many other critters we know to be less complex and less intelligent to do the same thing, because operant conditioning works. At the end of the day all that serves is to reinforce what we already know, and to bore the dolphin, whose social life and communication are far richer and more interesting to it with members of their own species.
A domestic animal like a dog, or for that matter a captive ape, is interested in us because we almost completely define their existence; what humans think and want is relevant to them because we have control over almost every aspect of their lives. If they’re bright enough to understand that, the motive to humor humans, and to make real attempts to communicate things to them or try to understand communications from them, is built-in.
What Dr. Herzig is proposing is to attempt to communicate with wild dolphins that don’t depend on humans based on no other draw but being interesting as other intelligent creatures- playing on sheer curiosity plus a serious attempt to understand dolphin communication as much on their terms as on human terms. In order to have a conversation you have to have something to talk about; if she can actually manage that the results stand to be potentially far more interesting than anything else we’ve yet tried.