Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Called by Name
distributed 8/23/13 - ©2013

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Reid Detchon of Bethesda, Maryland.. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

Sometimes -- although less often than I'd like -- the news fills me with wonder and delight. On very rare occasions, a journalistic tidbit prods me into deep moral and philosophical reflection, and I rejoice in those often-challenging opportunities.

A brief report caught my eye a week ago that immediately hit the "wonder and delight" standard. As the facts of the story keep coming back to mind, I've been pondering the religious and ethical implications of what I've read.

Some of this "news" isn't all that new. It has been known for several years that dolphins have names -- names that they give themselves, and use extensively. ("Flipper" or "Kai" are names that people have given. The names they give themselves are quite different.) The newer finding announced this summer is that dolphins remember and respond to familiar names, even when they haven't related to the other individual for as long as 20 years.

We know of many species that are self-aware, where individuals recognize themselves in a mirror, for example. But it seems to me that having a name -- a distinctive whistle by which a dolphin announces itself, and to which it uniquely responds -- is a different layer of awareness. It is not an act of recognition, a "that's me in the mirror", but an announcement of identity, a "this is who I am" statement.

In the watery world of dolphins, sight and smell are not very reliable ways of recognizing your family and friends. Sound is the best way to share information. So each member of a pod will frequently call out its name -- "here I am". And, when a member of the pod gives voice to the name of another, the one who has been called (and only the one who has been called) responds immediately. ("Peter?" ... "Yes, Peter!")

That's a very different thing than the swimming pool game where the one who is "it" calls out "Marco" and everybody else responds "Polo". There, everybody responds in a generic way, and "it" just tries to tag any one of the other players. But in a crowded pool, calling out "Susie" and having Susie respond with "over here" is very personal. The recent news shows dolphins engaging in that personalized, one-on-one sort of call and response, and it also describes a powerful recognition when a name that hasn't been heard in years is heard.

Dolphins -- in the wild -- are in constant social interaction as distinct, self-aware individuals. The relationships are personal, unique, and long-remembered. That's delightful to me, and it makes me think very deeply about how we look at and relate to these smart, sentient creatures.

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In the Judeo-Christian tradition, names are very important. (We're certainly not unique in that! Naming is a powerful part of many cultures.) In the biblical narrative, names are filled with meaning, and new names are given to mark changes in role or identity. The Christian sacrament of baptism involves naming, using words to establish a unique identity by which an individual is bound to God and held within the church community.

When Elijah is competing with a crowd of other prophets, he puts forth a challenge, "Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God." (1 Kings 18:24) It is a test. Are those other gods self-aware and relational enough to recognize their name and respond appropriately?

Isaiah passes along the promise of God to Israel (43:1): "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."

Names are an indicator of individuality and relationship. I don't exist by myself. A name used in a social context recognizes and affirms our uniqueness. Being called by name feels very different than reacting to "hey, you." We're not just part of the herd, part of a collective. Each one of us participates in a distinctive way within a complex web of relationships.

We humans have named each other, and we've named our gods. In a collective way, for our own convenience, we've named species of plants and animals. There's the tricky story in Genesis of Adam giving species names to cattle, crows and caterpillars. (Is that establishing relationship or asserting control? The debate continues!) And there are the formalized names of taxonomy which we humans use to organize the complex world around us. (Turdidae Turdus migratorius is the common robin.) But generally we haven't looked at the members of those other species as individuals.

There is a distancing when identities are generic. Not only do we fail to enter into an I-Thou sort of relationship with members of those other species, we fail to recognize that they may be having their own I-Thou relationships. We have, for the most part, been oblivious to the depth of identity that might exist in other-than-human realms.

The news about dolphin names makes me stop and reconsider. If they have that intensely personal sort of relationship within their social structures, then there is far more going on than I had imagined. And that puts us in a new category of moral relationships.

Another piece of recent news shows where our laws and practices need to change once we take seriously the self-awareness and social identities present among other species. At the end of July this year, AsianCorrespondent reported:

The government of India has officially recognized the 'personhood' of dolphins, a move that will force the closure of planned dolphin parks across the country. After Hungary, Costa Rica and Chile, India is now the fourth country in the world to ban the capture and importation of dolphins for commercial entertainment. India's move is in accordance to the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans conceived by a number of scientists and philosophers, which affords cetaceans (whales, orcas, dolphins, etc.) with the same ethical considerations as human beings.

When I recognize the self-awareness and the sophisticated relationship of cetaceans -- or primates or parrots -- then I cannot think of them just as things. What I might have been able to accept before now shades into enslavement and exploitation. If dolphins give and receive names, then we should recognize the exceptional moral standing that they deserve.

Scientists with microphones and computers have discovered the wonders of dolphin names. What a delight to know that! The greater challenge is for us -- especially in our social ethics and our laws -- to discover the rights and responsibilities that follow from the awareness of such a wondrous world.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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