The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

Setting Muddled Thinking Straight

Realigning the tumblers when the mind serves lemons.

Does the mind work like a slot machine? Mine sometimes does. Pull the lever of conjecture and the tumblers start turning. When they stop, I’m sometimes left just short of a jackpot.

Cherries . . . cherries . . . and, alas, a lemon.

How disappointing.

All the more so when the conjecture has been undertaken in public and in print. In this very column to be precise. I’m afraid I may have pushed a lemon of a notion your way several months ago in “Matching Wits: Dolphin vs. Primate, Gauging the Depth of Our Intelligence” (May 30).

So I’ll come clean here and now, and let you be the judge as to whether my thinking was sunny and bright, impossibly overcast, or—hope having a habit of springing eternal—merely partly cloudy.

In discussing a 1957 Marineland hearing range experiment with famed dolphin expert John Lilly, I said that the dolphin being rewarded for audible whistles “apparently became curious about the hearing range of its human handler” and so began “an experiment of its own.”

Time for a full disclosure, which might explain (at least partially) my tendency to anthropomorphize when it comes to questions of dolphin intelligence. The disclosure is this: I worked as a dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy for a number of years. Which means, among other things, that I’ve been out-thunk by marine mammals with holes in their heads on more than one occasion (yes, my mamma’s very proud—thanks for asking).

Are such experiences sufficient for cultivating a confirmation bias about the robustness of the dolphin intellect? Probably—even if I like to think I’ve got it mostly in check.

But wait, there’s more.

After explaining the parameters of the Lilly experiment, I leapt to a conclusion that, in retrospect, I find difficult to justify.

After each rewarded whistle, I explained, the dolphin raised its whistle pitch until the rewards ceased. Lilly, the experimenter, could tell by the slight twitch of skin around the dolphin’s blow hole that the animal was still whistling. When Lilly stopped hearing the sound, he stopped rewarding his test subject.

The dolphin, having exceeded the upper limit of frequencies within the human hearing range, emitted several additional “silent” whistles before hitting again upon a tone Lilly could hear and, therefore, reward.

All well and good, so far.

But then, I claimed, “The dolphin had learned something new about the sensory limits of humans” and kept its whistles within audible limits for the rest of the experiment.

Such a conclusion, it now seems to me, goes a bit too far.

Rather than credit the dolphin with a global awareness about the overarching nature of the experiment (and making, thereby, a fairly large claim about dolphin cognitive ability), it might have been better to stick to more solid, behavior-based ground.

The dolphin, after all, was being operantly conditioned using fish rewards for correct responses. The animal, then, was learning to modify its behavior based on what it learned about the consequences of that behavior. Whistle within a certain range, eat well. Whistle above or below that range, don’t eat.

The dolphin may or may not have gained any understanding beyond that simple paradigm, but surely the behaviors observed during the experiment do not, in and of themselves, justify my

earlier, grander claim on behalf of the dolphin about a more global cognitive awareness.

Who was it that said the simplest explanation is usually the most correct? That guy must have been really smart. I’ll bet he ate a lot of cherries. My apologies, meanwhile, for the lemon.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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