The Dark Side of
July 6, 1999
mans favorite animals is the dolphin. This sportive sea
mammal has long enjoyed better press than, say, Fred Astaire. In France it
was a symbol of royalty; Shakespeare uses it as a symbol of aquatic grace
and beauty. Legends of its beneficence to shipwrecked sailors have
circulated since ancient Greece.
Movies and documentaries portray
dolphins as high-IQ and human-friendly critters, possibly communicating
in their own special language. Dolphins have even been described as
highly evolved spiritual beings. Environmentalists want to
protect it against the tuna industry (though killing the poor tuna is
But the dolphins lucky streak may
be coming to an end. William J. Broad reports in the New York Times that
the lovable dolphin has an unexplained darker side.
It seems there is credible testimony and
evidence that dolphins have a mean streak. They kill porpoises and even
dolphin calves; there are pathetic stories of dead porpoises and baby
dolphins washing up on the coast of Virginia, their lifeless bodies bearing
telltale teeth-marks and injuries. Untamed dolphins have been known to
has reached the point where the federal government has mounted a
campaign to warn us against the dangers of wild dolphins. Such warnings
are presumably authorized by the Interstate Commerce Clause, and next
we can expect a federal campaign to observe young dolphins for the
purpose of spotting the early warning signs.
Nobody can explain why dolphins display
aggressive behavior, particularly against their own young; though there
are mutterings about some evolutionary reason for it, it
appears to be irrational, serving no survival purpose. Unlike most
mammals, dolphins dont eat what they kill (though they do eat
squid and fish for nourishment). They seem to be driven by what Samuel
Taylor Coleridge called motiveless malignity, battering
smaller creatures, smashing their skulls and vertebrae, and biting them to
death for the fun of it.
Infanticide is common in
nature, Mr. Broad notes. Females kill their young when food
is scarce and male lions and bears, for example, sometimes kill the young
of a female taken as a new mate, giving them a reproductive and
evolutionary edge. Such animals must be pretty smart if they grasp
the concept of evolution.
But of course the fact that other
mammals kill their young doesnt make it right for dolphins to do it.
This is the old everybody does it excuse. Nature red
in tooth and claw ...
We have such a benign image of
dolphins, says Dr. Dale J. Dunn, a veterinary pathologist. So
finding evidence of violence is disturbing. Yes, and sad. All of us
like to think of the dolphin as our friend; now were told that its
smile is hypocritical, like that of the wretched crocodile or the president
of the United States.
The dolphin has been taking us for a ride.
But in fairness, weve wanted to be fooled. The benign animal,
infused with evolutionary wisdom, has replaced the noble savage in the
sentimental mythology that perennially asks why civilized human beings
cant just return to Nature. Illusions about Nature are of a piece
with liberal illusions about human nature and the possibility of universal
peace and brotherhood.
For some animal lovers, man suffers by
comparison with beasts. In the words of George Orwells Animal
Farm: Four legs good, two legs bad. (Many would add:
No legs best of all.)
For thousands of years, Nature has been
something human beings have yearned to get the hell out of. Illusions
about Natures benignity arose only after the escape was complete,
and people could visit a safely contained parcel of Nature in the
zoo, the park, or the aquarium without being at her mercy. In
confinement, dangerous beasts became harmless, observable, even lovable.
Tenderness replaced terror.
Animal life does offer valuable
intimations of human nature, but these arent entirely encouraging.
Gorilla colonies, for instance, dont roll out the red carpet for
human visitors; it took Diane Fossey months to earn the grudging trust of
the mighty apes she studied. The Ku Klux Klan would have shown more
Broadly speaking, animals are violent,
predatory, xenophobic, possessive, and lacking in compassion. We owe
them no apologies. Besides, many of them taste good.
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