My brother-in-law is a philosophy professor, and while in Minnesota recently, I had the opportunity to attend one of his ethics classes. The subject of the week was abortion, and much of the discussion hinged on the difficulty of establishing person-hood. There are philosophers who believe person-hood rests on criteria such as self-awareness, conscientiousness, determination, etc. Other philosophers believe these criteria are ultimately problematic, and that we require a more biological definition — that person = human being, where “human being” is defined by criteria such as being bipedal, possessing a neural network, (and to distinguish us from other animals) unable to fly unassisted, unable to echolocate…

It’s that last criteria — echolocation — I was thinking about while reading the story of Ben Underwood, a boy who lost his sight to cancer at age 3 and instinctively taught himself to emit a series of clicking noises with his tongue and gauge the distance to things by listening for the echoes. But Underwood doesn’t just gauge distances — he can tell what materials things are made of, how they move through space, where they land when they fall. Though he is blind, Underwood skateboards with his friends, plays basketball, and refuses to walk with a cane. And he’s already been offered a job as a dolphin trainer.

Of course no one would say Underwood is not a person, but it’s amusing when we create seemingly universal descriptions such as “A person is a being that cannot echolocate” … and then nature proves us wrong.

Music: Paul Desmond :: Squeeze Me

6 Replies to “Echolocation”

  1. I guess inability to spell doesn’t exclude one from the category of human beings either, given the quality of the replies to your “dolphin trainer” blog entry from what I assume are younger humans. “i would love to become a dolpintrainer but dont no what to do next i mean how do i get a job?” Sheesh! ;-)

    For that matter, nature shakes things up a bit every time the occasional non-bipedal human baby is born, e.g. babies with 3 legs, mermaid babies, babies with no legs.

  2. Everyone knows humans are defined as featherless beings with two legs. If you’ve got a problem with this, you can take it up with Plato.

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