* Posts by LudwigW

2 posts • joined 24 Jul 2013

Boffins: Dolphins call each other NAMES. Not RUDE ones!


Re: Or Not

There are certainly similar situations, but they all presume full language competency is already there.

But imagine if someone only ever answered when their name was called by echoing it. We'd think them deranged or deficient somehow, wouldn't we? Then imagine that everyone was like that. We just call out our names, and maybe, very occasionally, call out someone else's, and when we hear our own name we just repeat it. Then we'd be just like the dolphins. Nothing wrong with that. Quite useful, really. We could keep track of one another, the point being here that we'd recognize that names refer, to ourselves and some others. Mothers would be able to locate their offspring in distress, for example (baboon mothers can't do that, but we still think they're pretty smart).

Having a signature call for yourself, along with a small set of signal calls is one thing. Intentionally calling another to gain their attention or to summon them is quite another. When Tarzan gets from "Me Tarzan" to "You Jane" he's jumped into language, and then the medium is bound to expand: Who? Yes, No, and so on. I see no sign at all that dolphins have crossed that Tarzan threshold.


Media hype of very inconclusive science

The media had a field day on this yesterday, falling over themselves in amazement that scientists had discovered that dolphins "call each other by name" and even engage in "conversation."

No surprise there, of course, and I'm sure the scientists loved the attention. It's a great story. But it really helps to read what the boffins actually wrote.

Contrary to what the article on this site asserts, King and Janik did not follow "groups of wild dolphins and record them whistling each others' names." Rather, using a not entirely reliable signature whistle identification method (SIGID), they recorded the signature whistles of individual bottlenose dolphins, and then played those whistles or control whistles of unfamiliar animals back to the dolphins to see what response they would get.

The authors confess that they " were unable to identify which animal in the group replied to the playback," partly due to the limitations of their technology. In just two cases a dolphin in the pod gave an unambiguous "echo" answer, but they weren't to know whether the dolphins that did this were calling their own names or those of others. However, they say the latter possibility is unlikely since it is very rare for dolphins to copy the signature whistles of others. They add that "the fact that a signature whistle is primarily used by the whistle owner allows it to serve as a label for that particular individual when copied."

If all that dolphins generally do is announce their presence to others and recognize the calls of others we must allow that they communicate (but we knew that already). Dolphins have a limited repertoire of nonsignature calls. Thus any claim that dolphins have conversations, even to the extent of calling each other by name, is counterintuitive, to say the least. If they do indeed call each other that fact alone should have kick started a great deal more language.


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