Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Dolphins don’t buy books

From Wikipedia

We can be fairly sure dolphins don’t read books simply because we never find sodden pages of dolphin literature on the beach. Anyhow they have no money to buy them.

The dolphin’s lot is abject penury with nothing to read and a diet of cold fish. If they were as bright as some folk make out, they’d do something about that.

Yet suppose human intelligence is merely a complex feature of the natural world. In that case it may be interesting to take dolphin illiteracy and indigence a little further. For example, what if some of our important inventions are not peculiar to humans, but arise naturally from a high level of intelligence and co-operative social organisation?

The two inventions I’m obviously suggesting here are money and books. Paper books are under competitive pressure from electronic devices such as the Kindle and the internet generally, but functionally there is an important equivalence. So I’ll use the word book for traditional or electronic media.

Books are a route by which many adults further their education as they see fit Money is mostly how people manage their material lives as they see fit. Books and money help maintain two of our key freedoms, the freedom to share labour and the freedom to understand what others have understood before us - or at least their opinions.

To my mind it is tempting to imagine inventions which might be common to intelligent species across the universe. In other words, certain socially important inventions could arise naturally on any suitable planet supporting a species of sufficient social intelligence. Perhaps there is a universal logic of exchange and all intelligent social beings would understand both money and books.

Of course we are constrained by our humanity and it is too easy to picture alien species which conveniently share some of our characteristics. Klingons and Dr Who for example. Yet the conjecture is potentially testable because it could be verified if SETI ever makes contact with another intelligent species.

Life being what it is we expect things to be rather more complex though – we expect to be surprised. Also, if dolphins turn out to be as intelligent as we are, then the idea is wrong to begin with because dolphins don’t seem to have much use for money or books. Although as far as I can see, dolphins don’t seem to be particularly intelligent.

So in an odd and inverted sense it may be anthropocentric to assume that money and books must be purely human inventions. On the other hand, it may be that this line of thinking really is anthropocentric and we will never contact an alien intelligence because we cannot recognise intelligence other than our own. And how common is that!

Yet natural law looks very much like the universal language of nature and we would not search in the first place if we did not believe our intelligence to be at least a little more than narrowly human. Surely any contact with non-human intelligence would have to be based on some mutually understood natural regularities – or natural laws.

As things stand this is all lighthearted speculation, but maybe one day it won’t be. Certain aspects of social life could turn out to be aspects of all intelligent life, taking us beyond the range of any telescope - philosophically at least. 


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Sackerson said...

1. “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”


2. Dolphins have been around for an estimated 8 - 13 million years:


whereas Homo Habilis appeared perhaps only 2.3 mya:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_evolution -

which makes us look less like a successful design and more like a rash.

3. "... abject penury with nothing to read and a diet of cold fish." I've known kids like that, except for the fish (they survive at home on crisps, chocolate and bread sandwiches),

4. "... illiteracy and indigence": the twin curses of our age.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - I was thinking about human durability only the other day. I can't see us lasting another million years, let alone the 8 - 13 million dolphins have managed.