The dolphin as our beast of burden

D. Graham Burnett in Orion:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 07 14.58 Tursiops truncatus—a slate-gray, slick-skinned net thief, which coastal fishermen of the late nineteenth-century Atlantic sometimes called the “herring hog” in disgust—would, by the 1970s, leap in the vanguard of the Age of Aquarius, enjoying an improbable secular canonization as the superintelligent, ultrapeaceful, erotically uninhibited totem of the counterculture. And to this day, for many, the bottlenose—mainstay of aquatic ecotourism, beloved water-park performer, smiling incarnation of soulful holism—represents a cetacean version of our better selves. If, as Thoreau wrote a few years after the slaying of the Dart River dolphin, “animals . . . are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry a portion of our thoughts,” then there are few creatures that have done more hauling for Homo sapiens in the twentieth century than Tursiops truncatus.

How? Why? Answering these questions demands a turn through the strange history of postwar American science and culture, and the unbraiding of a set of unlikely historical threads: Cold War brain science, military bioacoustics, Hollywood mythopoesis, and early LSD experimentation. Recovering our strange and changing preoccupations with the bottlenose dolphin across the twentieth century is, in the end, an adult swim.

More here. [Thanks to S. Asad Raza.]