The Anxiety of Dolphins (and the dance of bees)

One of the more disturbing, intriguing and enlightening concepts I learnt about from BBC4 this year was the idea that dolphins could kill themselves. I nearly typed ‘commit suicide’, but I have learnt from making Radio 4 documentaries that ‘commit suicide’ links the act of taking your life with the crime it once was, so it is now null and void.
I once read that suicide was only made a crime and a sin in the middle ages by a church and government fearing that a workforce, living in such squalor and surrounded by mourning and hopelessness, would all kill themselves for a quick trip to heaven if given the choice.
And so, it was hastily decreed that such a short cut was not possible, and only natural death by plague, pox, or poorly aimed scythe would get you to heaven. Fashion your own noose, and you’ll end up in hell and damnation, you keep ploughing for your feudal lord until you drop.

Last week, I asked the hive mind about what might have been the first recorded suicide. Who might have been the first to look at their life and consider that oblivion was better?
What other animals may have ever considered that? Did that melancholy tiger, pacing in a cramped zoo and fed on diseased haunches take a moment to consider tearing at its own arteries?

Is it only those creatures aware of their own appearance in a reflection who could even toy with such a notion?

The BBC4 doc, made by the often excellent filmmaker Chris Riley, told the tale of a dolphin that the hoped to teach to speak English. John C Lilly, author of The Centre of the Cyclone, asked his assistant, Margaret Howe, to live with a dolphin named Peter for ten weeks. It has made a list of four bizarre experiments that should never be repeated.
When the project was failing, perhaps unsurprisingly considering structural differences of airways and mind, they gave Peter some LSD. This moment in the documentary quite shocked my wife, but I explained this was the 1960s and those in and around neuroscience and consciousness studies realised this was a brief window of hallucinogen funding possibilities. They gave LSD to almost everything they could, even Cary Grant.  The experiment is now best remembered for the joyous tabloid glee that Margaret sexually satisfied Peter as he became overly enamoured with her. The Telegraph recently headlined a feature about her as, The Woman Who Lived In Sin with a Dolphin, though marrying a dolphin is tricky. I am not sure the statute books have dealt with that issue yet. Too me, this is far from the most interesting part of the story.
Once the experiment was deemed a cul-de-sac, the dolphin departed, but not too the palatial pool that the experimenters had presumed. Incarcerated in a dank and minimal concrete structure, and without the human companion the dolphin had bonded with, this highly evolved mammal began to appear melancholy and disinterested. The suicide,as some deemed it to be, apparently entailed the dolphin rising to the surface, taking a breath, and then sinking to the pool’s floor, seeking no further breaths, and so dying.

I know little more of this. I am sure there are experts that may question or dismiss this premise, but how disturbing and horribly fascinating that another creature apart from us may be able to make such a terrible choice.

In the bath, I looked at some small flying bug knocking lightly on the window. How odd, I thought, that it doesn’t even know it exists. It could delight in its ignorance, except that it can’t delight in anything at all…

How I hope to hear of a bee that has evolved to the point of rebelling against its waggle dance being purely information, and it starts to throw in a little gossip before directing the hive to the best apple blossom in Suffolk.

“You’ll never guess what I saw that wasp doing around a coke bottle…”

I continue to tour forever to keep me out of the house and stop me getting in the way – Stowe, Belfast, Dublin, Northampton (with Alan Moore), Totton, Southend, Coventry, Exeter and on and on (USA and Australia in 2015) Details of all things HERE

Also there’s a new series of Live Science and History shows with the likes of Mary Beard and Stewart Lee at the Bloomsbury this Christmas HERE

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2 Responses to The Anxiety of Dolphins (and the dance of bees)

  1. Emily Scott says:

    Very interesting post, I hadn’t heard about committing suicide first becoming a crime/sin in the Middle Ages. Makes sense, another way for the Church to control the public.

    I believe animals probably feel all sorts of emotions we believe them incapable of. Many people used to believe animals didn’t even feel physical pain.

  2. liliannberg says:

    Being atheist is to believe that there is no life after this and to commit suicide (no apologies to Channel 4), is a human right. Full stop. And since you as an atheists don’t acknowledge any religious bizzo about sin etc. no one has the right to stop you from gracefully sink to the bottom of the pool or indeed to condemn you for this action of mercy. Dolphins are amazing animals, they should be left alone to live in freedom from the nasty selfishness of human interfering. To keep animals in captivity, to subject them to painful, idiotic experiments in the name of science is evil. This dolphin was tortured to death. Suicide is not always a “terrible choice” – it’s a valid escape route for a fate worse than death.

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