Monday, January 9, 2012

Removing the blubber blanket...

Though the excruciatingly noisy and omnipresent chatter of marine shrimp, aurally gifted whales can filter out important sonic communications from their cetacean kin. We know this because military researchers in the 1950s were interested in acquiring this selective hearing ability for themselves. Mid-century scientists and politicians were convinced that whales and dolphins held many secrets, and therefore countless well-funded brutal and murderous sea mammal experiments were conducted in the quest for the key to some unknown holy grail. Perhaps this was spurred by the finding that "whales and dolphins quite naturally go in the directions we call spiritual, in that they get into meditative states quite simply and easily," a fact reported by D. Graham Burnett in his new book The Sounding of the Whale. Certainly some of our most compelling mad scientists came out of this ugly research, notably the lovably cracked John C. Lilly who swore he heard dolphins repeating English phrases to one another upon being returned to their holding tanks after an experiment. "After hammering his way into hundreds of mammalian brains," Burnett writes, "Lilly suddenly heard a voice." Countless of these charged and chilling inter-mammal experiences lead to the popular understanding we have today of whale-dolphin intelligence.

Have we found a more humane way to continue the conversation with our cetacean cousins or did we lose interest when vivisection and blubber-filleting "flensers" fell out of popular fashion?

(with ideas and phrases borrowed from the NYTimes Book Review by Paul Greenberg)