we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Old Buddha’s Gift, Part–7: Extravagant Flights of Fancy

A short selection from Essay Forty-two in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice.

Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, “Think.” In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea. … The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others. —Helen Keller [1]

Dolphins can clearly exchange images using sound, the primary medium of human language. But images aren’t words. And besides, isn’t ‘sonar language’ problematic when seen from our motor-sensory phenomenological perspective? Wouldn’t the usefulness of sound for dolphin perception create conflict?


The real question comes down to this: is Kassewitz’s “Rosetta Stone” technology, which correlates dolphin sounds with non-symbolic images (see: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2022/07/28/young-buddha-at-home-part-5-three-common-mistakes-we-have-all-made/), really detecting innovation, when our well-adjusted dolphin, plying its niche efficiently, doesn’t physically need this level of imagination—supposing even that it does have the capacity? In his words:

Our new model of dolphin language is one in which dolphins can not only send and receive pictures of objects around them but can create entirely new sono-pictures simply by imagining what they want to communicate.

But if dolphins don’t need to mentally image scenarios that do not yet exist in their experience, and especially if such invention is, in the wild, a waste of valuable time and energy, and in consequence, through the generations, such extravagant flights of fancy are being deselected by a stable ecology’s body-behaviour conformity imperative, then it’s my guess dolphins are not imagining at our level (we might compare Kanzi the genius chimp to her wild cousins here to see how captivity defeats this limitation). Personally I’d be surprised if dolphin communications in the wild are found to go beyond what’s needed for immediate coordination. Still, that they do this without linguistically referencing their mental activity—that is, without fragmenting themselves and distancing themselves from their shared experience—well, this is the magic that we humans spend much of our time and energy seeking isn’t it?

Such powers would seem wonderful indeed to a non-aquatic animal such as ourselves; not just because the capacity would transpose, in our world of vision, as the power to read another’s mind just by ‘looking’ into their ‘eyes’, but we might envy them also because our own behavioural fragmentation (which the dolphin presumably does not experience) makes it more difficult for us to fully access an equivalent power that we do in fact already possess: the capacity for a very subtle empathy that involves, ‘neuron-reflectively’, our whole physical being. For we can do this as well as any other mammal—but only in times of heightened awareness.


1. Keller, Helen. 1996 [1903]. The Story of my Life. Mineola NY: Dover Publications., p. 15-16.

Leave a Reply