We are at it again. Trying to learn from animals to serve a human purpose. What could be wrong with that, I can hear many of you ask. Well, my brain isn’t big enough to grasp all the logical arguments against it. But my totality gets that where we humans attempt to acquire information to satisfy a curiosity, to augment our resources, to provide a benefit to humankind, we are on shaky ground, and should tread cautiously, mindfully and responsibly before treating other creatures, other sentient creatures, without their permission, as our personal and of-right experiment.
My question now, as ever, is why we need to know something. So that we can start using sound in a way that we were never intended, do not understand, and will be like the ever-bull-in-a-china-shop earthling? I’d like to think we we’ll soon stop this. But so long as there are research monies, it appears that we’ll study any thing at any cost.
Let me be clear. I am not against curiosity. I am wholly in favor of it. But with curiosity as with everything comes responsibility. So, we shouldn’t inject rabbits’ eyes with eye liner at ever-increasing concentrations and repetitions to see where it becomes an irritant. We already know enough from prior studies to make reasoned assumptions and act accordingly. We really do. In the same way, we shouldn’t study the language of an echo-locating creature that travels hundreds of miles per day in a small sound-bouncing chamber or enclosed bay. Nor should we study that same creature in the ocean by inflicting upon it sounds not generated by its natural world. It’s bad enough that our ships pollute their environment with sound. Now, we’re specifically generating them and then targeting and inflicting those sounds on them?
Two groups, that I am aware of and certainly there are more, are doing just this, both with “environment” in their name. Sidebar: that aspect of the environmental industry, the part that would defend human activities against a charge of being an intrusion on the environment, makes me more than a bit ashamed to be an “environmental” attorney.
The first group, Southall Environment Associates, Inc., is performing studies funded by the U.S. Navy, NOAA, and others. Dr. Southall has published over 30 peer-reviewed articles on the effects of noise on dolphins. Really? And how much more sound will you expose dolphins to, to ascertain (1) at what levels we don’t invade their space, (2) at what levels do we merely harass them, (3) at what levels do they beach, or (4) at what levels does our sound cause internal hemorrhaging? I have the answer for you. For all questions: as many as you can get funding for. And as to how many studies you need to know this? That answer, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is zero.
The second group is The Natural Environment Research Council. As you will see from the article, the object of the study is to more fully understand how echolocating creatures use sound. Unless and until the only reason underlying this study is to find ways for humans to minimize our footprint in their environment, shut the thing down. I note that Professor John Rees is NERC’s natural hazards theme leader. So maybe we are trying to figure out how cetaceans seem to anticipate earthquakes. Or how to find victims beneath piles of rubble. Both of those could be laudable if we were just observing their behavior in their world, unharassed. But to study dolphins in a sound-bouncing bowl to show that the dolphin can distinguish between a plastic fish and a real one? Hm. The results of the study being to assist humans in using sound to find objects, with the sophistication and intricacy of echolocating creatures. Really? Meaning we are going to project sound in way that we are not naturally equipped in even more ways.
Here’s my questions, again. Do we need to study dolphins and bats to get whichever goal we have? Don’t we have enough sophistication with sound and expertise with sound engineers who can tweak dials and squelch signals and dampen inputs? Sure we do.
I’m looking to a day in my lifetime when we understand that our efforts, our study, should seek to decrease the size of our footprint. And not to expand it into terrain that is not our own.