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Times of the Islands Magazine

The Passionate Potential of Seeing Eye-to-Eye - A kinship with dolphins

Jun 22, 2015 08:39AM ● By Cory Batelaan
A kinship with dolphins fosters compassion

By Dr. Randall H. Niehoff

Man needs to go outside himself in order to find repose and reveal himself. —José Martí, revolutionary and poet (1853-1895)

During the summer vacation months island visitors always head for the beach—and lots of locals can be found there as well. Their intentions vary: some are shell seekers, others try fishing, many take a dip; the energetic mount paddle boards or hitch themselves up to go windsurfing; the photographers frame colorful shots, the birders count species; and most end up plopping down happily to soak up the warm rays of sunshine and, in spite of holding a book, surrender to a snooze.

Yet there is one unchangeable thing beachgoers have in common, an event that brings everyone to attention (and most to their feet): the arrival near shore of a dolphin or two! A ripple of excitement sweeps along the surf and a wonderful mood fills the air, a joyful sensation akin to how we feel when we catch our first glimpse of a Fourth of July parade coming down the street. It’s as if an old friend (who happens to be famous) has just arrived.

The ancient Greeks named this most welcome guest after their word for “womb” (delphus); they sensed a kinship between humans and dolphins, suggesting that we were created as “womb mates” (the Greek word for siblings is adelphoi; cf. Phil-adelphia, “city of brotherly love”). History is full of stories revealing the special relationship between our two species, and countless examples of cooperation occur daily (from “team-fishing” in the wild to U.S. Navy missions to spectacular shows).

Recent brain research by neuroscientists at places such as UC Santa Barbara, Columbia University and the California Institute of Technology have identified an evolutionarily advanced part of the human brain (cornus ammonis 2, or CA2) that is dedicated to social behavior, fostering trust and exercising cooperation. Across mammals, the larger the size of the typical social group, the larger the relative size of the brain (especially the CA2). Here are found distinctly shaped neurons that are responsible for language, empathy, trust, guilt, embarrassment, love and humor. The CA2 includes neurons that activate only if you look at a face.

These special brain cells are also found in the great apes, elephants and toothed whales (the family Delphinidae) to which our beloved bottlenose dolphins belong. It’s no surprise, then, that the only mammals science thus far can prove able to recognize themselves in a mirror are those mentioned above, and among the whales, specifically the bottlenose dolphin and the Orca (killer whale). The passionate potential revealed in research and at the beach is simply this: if a creature can recognize itself, it can recognize another self.

In 2014 the father of sociobiology, Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson released his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, which confirms his central thesis about the direction of our evolutionary development: altruism in individuals strengthens groups—cooperation trumps competition in groups.

This summer, a dolphin encounter could confirm the source of our communal delight: seeing “eye-to-eye” with a fellow creature makes us family—facing up to the future as relatives creates a world of growing compassion. Keep your eyes open…

Retired after 41 years of parish ministry, Dr. Randall Niehoff has been a resident of Sanibel since 1991.

Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embodies all living creatures and does not limit itself to humankind. —Albert Schweitzer, physician, theologian, philosopher and musician (1875-1965)