Richard G. Petty, MD

Dolphins Have Names

It seems that not a day goes by without new research breaking down the barriers between humans and many of the other species that share our planet. I have reported on the burgeoning research into emotional expression in animals. No surprise to anyone who spends much time interacting with them, but a shock to some of my more conservative colleagues. Within the last ten years I have spoken to countless psychologists clinging to the notion that animals are just bundles of reflexes designed to protect them and allow them to reproduce.

The evidence for complex communication patterns in dolphin has long fascinated me. This was triggered in part by the work of the late John Lilly. One of my mentors in neurology was firmly of the opinion that it was impossible because they did not have the right neurological machinery. It seems that he was wrong. There is an extraordinary new report picked up by the BBC and the National Geographic  from a team of scientists based at St Andrews University in Scotland: the same place that Prince William attended for four years. In a three-year-study  of wild dolphins, conducted in Sarasota Bay off Florida’s west coast and funded by the Royal Society of London, they found that dolphins communicate like humans by calling each other by "name.” Using whistles, these mammals are able to recognize themselves and other members of the same species as individuals with separate identities. They have labels for each other just as we do.

This is important not just because of the implication that they have evolved some of the same abilities that we have, but because it likely means that they have a sense of self and of identity and that they able to differentiate each other as individuals.

I was talking about these findings with She Who Must Be Obeyed, and she pointed out that our horses appear to be able to do the same thing: if you watch them closely they have different calls for attracting each other’s attention, and these calls are different when they are at home or when they are in competition. Two of the horses are constantly going to competitions together, and after they have done well, they have a new repertoire of sounds with which they communicate with each other, and yet others with which they communicate with other horses. For people not used to being around these animals, they always assume that we are simply anthropomorphizing. But I don’t think so: it really seems that they call to each other in a precise and predictable way after they have done their jobs well. We have often said that they are bragging: perhaps we’re not so far from the truth.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


5 Responses to “Dolphins Have Names”
  1. Jim Pfrommer says:

    “If it not observable, throw it out.” The rigid, reductionistic rules that have helped our sciences grow so steadily for the past 500 years have not been without their costs.

    How many excellent naturalists had to hide tons of great data for fear of being accused of anthropomorphism?

    I think it all started when DesCartes made his deal with the Catholic church in order to be able to cut up and experiment on animals. Prior to that, man was much closer to nature. After that time, man placed himself above nature and often used the Biblical quote on “dominion” to justify a wide range of incredibly cruel and unnatural practices.

    They say man’s begining to walk upright had more to do with the development of language than use of the hands with their opposable thumbs. The development of word language, first spoken and then written has created an unnatural separation between huminids and the rest of the animal kingdom. People have become so centered on even doing all their thinking exclusively in words, that many folks have nearly lost touch with their ability to think in pictures, sounds, smells, and other sources of input.

    It is as if our development of language has cost us our ability to communicate with with rest of the animal (and maybe more) world.

    Our equines vocalize little, but that may be a result of the different living situation they have from show animals which tend to spend much more time stabled. Our equines live as a natural herd, though they have access to box stalls that they may share at will. Our two horses are adopted BLM Mustang mares, and seldom vocalize. I can remember as a child feeding our horses, the sounds they make when they realize someone is there to feed them. Our equines now have constant access to hay and pasture, so there are no feeding times.

    I have felt most animal vocalizations may serve primarily to indicate affect and not more detailed meanings as our human words convey. Studying the vocalizations of animals is a fascinating part of their communication, but I believe it is only the tip of the iceberg as far as their communication.

    Smells go right to some of the oldest centers of our brains, but we underdeveloped in detection and ability to process this amazing molecules.

    Currently, I am most focused on bodily sensations and pictures as two primary modes of animal communication. I’m just begining a book written in 1919 called “How Animals Talk” by William J. Long.
    He emphasizes the requirements of emptying our minds and staying still for long enough in the presence of the animals to begin to learn…

    Remember, the plural of anecdote is data !

  2. Jim Pfrommer says:

    I checked out John Lilly’s bio…
    Wow, taking psychedelics in an isolation tank with a dolphin ???

    Now that sounds like a mind blowing, or expanding, or something kind of adventure…

  3. Richard Petty says:

    These are terrific comments.

    You are quite correct that langauge is the great separator. From shamans to the most sophisticated Buddhist teachings, they all talk about silence and stillness as the ways to Know.

    There is powerful evidence to suggest that we do have access to a whole seam of knowledge about the world around us. The anthropologist Jeremy Narby studied shamans in the Amazonian rainforest who have found safe and effective herbal treatments among the 80,000 plants available to them. They are usually used in combinations, and to have tested all the plants and all the possible combinations would have taken hundreds of thousands of years. So it cannot have been done by trial and error. And the shamans say that some of their information is derived from animals.

    I feel sure that you are also right about the animals primarily expressing affect: that fits with my observations and makes evolutionary sense.

    It is also interesting that “alert” sounds that humans and some other primates generate – screams, yelps and some sexual sounds – are not generated in the language areas of the cortex, but come instead from parts of the cingulate gyrus that we share with most vertebrate species.

    I’ve just read and reviewed the book Pleasurable Kingdom by Jonathan Balcombe, in which he makes the point that sentience is far more common in animals than most people realize, and that even birds appear to do things for the pleasure of it. One of our cats is extraordinarily expressive and gives every indication that she feels joy and happiness when her mom comes home.

    You mentioned smell. Smell is so interesting: the only sense that bypasses the thalamus, and the whole limbic system is essentially an outgrowth of the olfactory system. One of the reasons for suspecting a role for the amygdala in certain forms of powerful and instantaneous emotional responses goes back more than a century, since the amygdala, together with the hippocampus is one of the primary sites that gets hit by rabies.

    Dogs appear to be able to create detailed 3D constructions of external space using olfaction. And women are just so much better at detecting some smells than are men.

  4. Richard Petty says:

    John Lilly’s work is extremely interesting. It formed the basis of the book Altered States by Paddy Chayevsky that got turned into a movie starring William Hurt in, I think, 1980. A number of former colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania knew him well, and said that he had an extraordinarily fine mind. That really shines through in some of his peer reviewed papers and in the earlier books: the Center of the Cyclone is a classic.

    I’ve had a go at using the tank, but not the LSD. I once knew a man who was a serious explorer of inner space. He was one of those people who kept logs of his experiences and carefully controlled the environment. He used LSD, ayahuasca, ketamine and a half a dozen things beside. I told him that I wasn’t much interested in going down that route, and he said, “You don’t need to, you’re the only person I know who can turn your world upside down and inside out and look at things from weird angles that nobody else even thought about.” I never quite knew how to take that…

  5. Richard Petty says:

    I hope that Jim will give us his insights into this one!

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