Gregory Bateson on Cetacean Communication

Gregory Bateson Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972 Ballantine Books, New York)

Notes on “Problems in Cetacean and other Mammalian Communication” (first published 1966, written while working for John Lilly and his dolphin centre in the Virgin Islands. pp 364 – 378)

In the problem of understanding Cetacean communication, mammals such as Dolphins and their sound production, is the difficulty of us as humans approaching communication that may have completely different goals and importance. Bateson describes the predominance of communication of relationship (love, hate, dependency etc) in non-human / non-linguisitc mammals, where there is no need for a language of data (humans have hands and manipulate objects and language is built out of this ability and necessity). The communication of relationship in humans is less explicit in language but can be found in gesture – proto-linguisitc communication – common to all mammals.

Cetaceans, Bateson proposes, are almost solely communicating issues of relationship, but unlike land-based mammals they have very little in the way of visible gestures,  facial expression, body hair, limbs are all smoothed in underwater life. It is not only very difficult if not impossible for us to even guess at these proto-linguistic meanings, but dolphins themselves must have developed other alternative ways of communicating – most probably through their complex sounds. 

Bateson also distinguishes between what he calls analogue and digital in communication. Human language could be considered digital, the example being that 5 has no greater value than 1 in a digital system, it’s pointless to think someone’s telephone number is greater than another, they are merely ways of accessing a matrix. In the same way the word big is no bigger than the word small. But in proto-linguistic gesture or behavior there are matters of degree, a muscle can be more or less tensed, a smile more or less intense, an analogic system.

Perhaps dolphin communication through sound is another digital system, but perhaps it is more concerned with questions of relationship than human language? How can we then study and potentially understand this communication and what does it lead to understanding ourselves in relation to music?

There are four levels of understanding that can be applied to testing intelligence. After the ability to distinguish between x and y, the ability to learn that x or y are a cue to behavior, and the ability to chose always for the good or one that produces the desired result, comes the final fourth layer, whether the dolphin/human can decide or not to collaborate using free choice. Most experiments with humans considered ’sane and reasonable’ don’t need to deal with this fourth layer because it is agreed upon at the outset, only schizophrenics, naughty children and dolphins will challenge this fourth point. But this is also the sign of an intelligence, suppressed in for example the training of circus animals, abrogating the use of certain higher levels of intelligence. How successfully can dolphins be studied in captivity when they are essentially bored in confined space?

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