Thursday, September 6, 2007

572 Talking animals and other people

Message no. 572[Branch from no. 565] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Thursday, March 8, 2007 5:02pm Subject: Talking animals and other people

Cool observations Dawn! I have great faith in the evolutionary capacity of all creatures, great and small! What you describe shows me the great striving of sentient organisms to go beyond the limitations of their genetic constraints and use the magical tool of universal logic to improve their well being. I read a great book called "Philosophie et perfection de l'homme. de la renaissance a descartes" (Philosophy and the perfection of humanity from the renaissance to Descartes) and it said that the religious (Jesuit trained) zoologist George Leclerc De Buffon (,_Comte_de_Buffon) had a theory in the 1700's that human beings and other animals all were striving to evolve to perfection, and were on a common course to being more and more intelligent. He felt, however, that at some point human beings worked to deny other animals access to greater intelligence by hunting down and killing the smartest wild non-humans and using animal breeding (domestication) to "dummify" others so that they could live among us and serve us but not compete with us. He did not agree with those who believed animals did not have souls (in fact it was not the church that insisted this, but the science of Descartes, who insisted that animals were mere machines or automatons). Buffon believed that if we allowed natural selection to take place (or used our artificial selection or breeding in permissive ways) other animals could also reach higher states of consciousness.

I have seen some evidence that supports this proposition: when I was doing my senior thesis at Harvard in Biological Anthropology, I studied a seal (Phoca vitulina) at the New England Aquarium that spoke a few words and phrases in clear English. It was the only one of its kind that we know of, and nobody taught the seal to do it. His name was "Hoover", and he said "Hello there" "Hey hey hey" "Hoover" and "Get outta here!". I videotaped him for a year and analyzed his vocalizations. We had no indication that Hoover understood what he said except he did use "Get outta here" during breeding season when males defend their harem, and he used "Hello there" and "hey hey hey" when he wanted food. These tendencies were statistically significant.

You can read about my study in this book:

And on wikipedia here:

When Hoover died an autopsy revealed that his brain was different from all other seals. As I recall his Wernick's area (language processing) was hypertrophied. Unfortunately, this mutation was not passed on to his offspring, although one of them, according to a trainer I ran into years later at a zoo conference I was speaking at in Kansas told me that one of the male pups (I think it was Spark) was trained to mimic a human word. Nothing like Hoover though. This is the magic and mystery of evolution -- God gifts individuals with favorable mutations, but it takes a supportive infrastructural environment to encourage that lucky (or blessed, if you will) innovation to spread and be fruitful and multiply. In Hoover's case the hybridization of his unique brain genes with those of the normal mothers of his six pups swamped the effects of whatever genes he had for a different brain structure.

What I think the Aquarium should have done, and should still do, is encourage their captive seals (which are housed in an atrociously small tank) to exercise the latent capacities of their normal brains as much as possible, and push the envelope. When they discover individuals with particular talents, they should then encourage breeding of those traits. It seems we have no qualms breeding bigger beef cattle, or show horses, and actively select traits for "best in show" when it comes to physical characteristics, but I wonder if we are doing all we can to improve the mental capacity of those with whom we share the earth.

Perhaps Count Buffon was right, and this is because we really don't want to share the planet with talking animals (too much competition?). But I grew up loving Walt Disney movies, and just the other night my wife and I watched the movie Babe and loved it, so I believe such a world would be marvelous!

What are your thoughts on this?

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