4 Nov 2021

If We Could Talk to the Animals

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains 
the hottest blood of all ... [1]
As far as I recall, even Doctor Doolittle - who, famously, abandoned his human patients in favour of treating animals, with whom he could communicate in their various languages - never spoke to a sperm whale. But, apparently, an interdisciplinary group of scientists may now be close to so doing, with help from AI technology ...
The Cetacean Translation Initiative aims to decode the astonishing variety of clicks and whistles made by sperm whales. If successful, the project would be the first time (outside of fiction) that humans will be able to understand - and presumably employ - the language of another species (if, that is, animal utterances can legitimately be described as a language) [2].   
Of course, learning to decipher and communicate in whale-speech isn't going to be easy, even with the most advanced systems of artificial intelligence. But it's an intriguing project and one wonders what Moby Dick might have to tell us ... 
Alas, I fear it won't be anything very pleasing to human ears; for I suspect that these huge, intelligent mammals will, like elephants, have long memories and will thus recall the industrial scale slaughter of their kind by man during the last 300 years [3]
Maybe, to paraphrase Nietzsche, they'll accuse us not only of being the most absurd and unfortunate of all animals, but also the cruellest [4]
But maybe, if we're lucky, they'll also teach us something about love ...
[1] D. H. Lawrence, 'Whales weep not!', The Poems, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 607-08. 
      This poem can be found online at poets.org: click here. Some readers might recall that the opening two lines were quoted by Capt. Kirk in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1986), which features a pair of humpback whales. 
[2] Scientists and linguists are still uncertain whether or not animals can be said to truly possess language. For vocalisations can only be called a language if it can be shown that they possess fixed meanings and structures (i.e., without semantics and grammar, you just have a lot of clicks, grunts, squeaks, and squawks).   
[3] Although sperm whales are now a protected species and remaining populations are large enough that their conservation status is rated as vulnerable rather than endangered, the recovery from centuries of commercial whaling will be a slow process and it's doubtful the number of whales inhabiting the world's oceans will ever be what it once was. 
[4] See Nietzsche, The Gay Science, III. 224. 
Musical bonus: 'Talk to the Animals', written by Leslie Bricusse for the film Doctor Dolittle (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1967). Performed by Rex Harrison (as Doolittle), it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and has been recorded by numerous artists, including Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis Jr. 
      Click here to listen to Bobby Darin's take on the song, from the album Bobby Darin Sings Doctor Doolittle, (Atlantic Records, 1967). 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Yes. And there's another piece of music readers may enjoy - Vox Balaenae, by George Crumb, of 1971, for electric flute, cello and amplified piano. Composed for the New York Camerata.
    But, who cares whether mad scientists with AI gear determine whether of not the awesome voice of the whale is to meet their cherished criteria for "language"or not. Where has human language got us - to the Anthropocene! A man-made disaster for the planet and its creatures, that human fools are still struggling in vain - with all the pompous language at their command - to prevent.
    Scientists have been speaking to whales for years. . .or rather shouting. . .through their intolerably noisy inventions - ships, sonar, underwater detonations, etc. - and sending them insane. Mad scientists have made life hell for whales. Their plastics and other toxic wastes have poisoned the whales' environment.
    Moby Dick would smash their "advanced system of artificial intelligence" to smithereens, as would any human who is a phallic "bonfire of vitality", with half the courage of Moby Dick.
    Whales can communicate with their beautiful magical voices through thousands of miles of ocean, without any damned scientific technology.
    Oh, what contemptible clowns humans are. At least those few sane scientists who are sufficiently in the know have predicted that the Covid vaccines created by the crazy greedy scientists are a disastrous time-bomb likely to virtually eliminate the human race over the next few years.