An enquiring mind should be treated with care.
The sun beat down with an unfaltering ferocity on the crowd of onlookers. Sweat glistened on flushed pink foreheads, families bickered and children screamed for cold treats. One particular group of children could be heard even above the seething rabble, baying relentlessly at a battle-weary bespectacled man. His shirt was patched with sweat, and the thinning remnants of his wiry grey hair were plastered to his face.
“Please Mr. Baxter, please!”
“You promised sir. You said you would!”
“Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream!”
The chanting was the final straw. Mr. Baxter wiped his brow, sighed and rescinded his opposition.
“Ok, ok. But I'll be missing the show for you kids. That's hardly fair.”
“Well, you should have gone earlier then sir,” one mischievous young redhead quipped from the centre of the mass of uniformed juveniles.
A smile spread across the teacher's lips. “You kids are getting too smart for your own good, you know that?”
“You're the one who's teaching us!” The redhead was on razor-sharp form.
“Touche, Keiran. Well, since I will be missing the show for you kids, I want you to do something for me.” Mr. Baxter scratched his chin pensively. “I want the names of everything you see in the show while I am away, so I will at least know what I have missed."
“Heh, that'll be tough.” Keiran whispered, just loud enough to reach his teacher's ever vigilant ear.
A groan went up from the assembly.
“Just make sure you don't miss any. This will count towards your final grade.” Mr. Baxter grinned, winked, and set off with a purposeful stride towards the vendor.
The children resumed their chatting, giggling, and hair pulling.
Only one sat silent. He stared straight ahead in awe, his eyes split wide open in sheer, unadulterated amazement as the animals performed their stunts. The seals were just finishing up their act, leaping simultaneously through hoops suspended far above the water. A ripple of applause ran through the crowd, and the announcer stepped onto stage, mike in hand.
“Wow, wasn't that amazing folks?” the announcer flicked a few strands of hair away from her face. “Say a big thank you to our favourite seals, Bella and Stinky!”
The crowd generated a louder ripple, punctuated with the sharp stab of wolf whistles. The silent lad clapped rapturously, rising out of his seat for a moment, until the disapproving gaze of his peers forced him back down. The seals waved gleefully, accepted their scaly, oily bonus, and waddled off stage.
“Ok, so up next, warming up for our stars, we have an orca of unrivaled talent, Ozzy!” The announcer clapped absent-mindedly as she made her way back into the wings.
A large gate lowered just under the surface of the water and a gigantic black shape slipped through into the deep blue pool. Ozzy circled languidly underwater for a moment, then powered upwards with a few strokes of his huge tail. Breaking effortlessly through the surface tension, he leapt clear of the water in an ambitious impersonation of a flying fish. His huge dappled frame hung motionless in the air for a split second before accelerating back through the rippling surface, sending a mini-tsunami towards the crowd.
The silent spectator recommenced his clapping with increased vigour. He was soaked from head to toe, but in contrast to his classmates he barely seemed to notice. He remained enthusiastically fixated as Ozzy continued his well-rehearsed exhibition, proudly displaying his agility and precise control. He repeated the tsunami maneuver several times, taking great care to cover every possible angle. Each time, fresh screams erupted from the freshly-moistened sections of crowd.
Ozzy wrapped up his act with an almighty leap, sending a gargantuan tidal wave over the onlookers. Screams were muffled this time, the majority having already been drenched beyond objection. He sidled over to the side of the pool and rested his head on the tiles, mouth gaping in anticipation of his bribe. The trainer reached into his bucket and removed the rear end of a tuna, tossing it casually into Ozzy's expectant maw. The teeth clasped together, and Ozzy sank contentedly beneath the surface and squeezed back through the gate.
“That was pretty cool huh?” The announcer's jubilant form slipped back onto stage. “Hope you guys aren't too wet. Although a refreshing dip might be what we all need on a day like today? It's a scorcher, right? Phew!” She fanned theatrically in front of her perfectly tanned face. “Now, for our finale, we have the cleverest animals in the sea. Maybe the whole world, depending on your opinion of us humans!” A chuckle rose from sections of the crowd, our silent spectator being the only vocal one from his group. “So, it's now time for the superstars to make their appearance. I'd like you to give an extra special welcome to our very special pair of dolphins, Anna and Tobias!”
Two grey bolts streaked from the gate, separating and circling the pool in opposite directions. They gradually built speed then turned towards each other, rising bullet-like towards the surface. As they broke through, they threw their noses backwards, flipping gracefully in front of the awestruck crowd before crashing back into the cool water. They made their way to the trainers and collected their reward. They devoured their morsels in one gulp, then broke away, moving backwards in parallel with their flippers raised.
The quiet observer had reached a new level of fascination, motionless in his seat, face frozen in slack-jawed incredulity. A subtle prod from the returning Mr Baxter snapped him back to reality.
“Sorry sir!” he exclaimed, shifting backwards to allow his teacher past.
“Not a problem Jack. Always glad to see one of my students engrossed in the wonders of nature. Even in such a regrettably artificial environment as this." He gestured toward the concrete cage. "But, beggars can't be choosers; those of us without the fortune to frequent the Caribbean must take opportunities where we can.” He smiled down at his pupil and handed him a rapidly softening cone of sugary, vanilla-tinged goodness.
He turned to his right and passed the tray of cones along the row.
“There's only enough for one each, kids, so don't get greedy!” he said, hopefully. “Now, what did I miss?”
“Dolphins and killer whales!” Keiran chimed without a moment's hesitation.
“Very good Keiran, but I have momentarily lost my grasp of the English language. Any chance you could go back to basics for me? The whale should be easy, I heard the announcer give you the important half of the answer...”
Keiran's eyes sank back to the floor. For a moment the class shifted uneasily in its seats, desperate to avoid being chosen to have their ignorance exposed to public scrutiny. Finally, after endless seconds of tense apprehension, a saviour piped up.
“The whales were Orcas sir.” Jack intoned softly. “And dolphins are Tursiops Truncatus.”
Mr Baxter's bushy grey eyebrows rose far above the rims of his glasses. “Very impressive. Even the correct species too. Your precision is enviable.”
He sank back into his seat beside Jack, slowly making his way through the collapsing mound of ice cream perched atop his conical wafer.
Jack's eyes remained fixed on the spectacle. The sense of kinship he felt with these beautiful animals was beyond anything he had ever encountered before. The way they responded to instructions, and the fact the trainers seemed to be able to carry out conversations with them put even his father's eternally obedient collie to shame. The impression he got of them was almost supernatural, their mischievous playfulness seeming to betray some higher knowledge.
He thought back to the chimps he had seen earlier, during the class's tour of the zoo. A group of young males had been rounding one of their herd into a corner and picking violently at him as he yelped in distress. The elder chimps barely seemed to notice, allowing this torture to continue unabated as the class looked on. Several of Jack's classmates giggled and snickered at the display, but Jack just felt queasy. Mr Baxter remarked on how, even after thousands of years of evolution, in many ways people still hadn't progressed that far beyond the primitive state.
Comparing that horrific scene to the graceful cooperation of these two mammals circled Jack's mind for a moment, drawing a nagging discomfort up from his chest. A thought formed in his mind, and the discomfort eased slightly.
Mr Baxter tapped him on the shoulder.
“Sorry to interrupt, Jack, but I have a question for you.”
Jack didn't shift his eyes from the soaring sea life, but Mr Baxter's curiosity pushed him forwards.
“How did you know the Latin names of those animals?” The elder man scratched his head in puzzlement. “That's pretty technical stuff.”
“My Dad works with animals. We have loads of books at home and every time they are on TV that's what we have to watch,” Jack muttered impatiently.
“I see, I see. Well, that's a good thing. All knowledge gives benefits. Sometimes it just takes us a while to see it's use.”
The pair settled back into staring at the leaping dolphins, the spray casting glittering, fragmented rainbows through the air.
“Sir?” Jack had broken free from the hypnotic spectacle.
“Yes?” Mr Baxter turned to face his pupil.
“I was thinking Sir.” Jack began hesitantly. “Wouldn't it be better if we had evolved from dolphins?”
“Better in what way Jack?” Mr Baxter said, his interest piqued by his precocious pupil.
“Well, I looked at the chimpanzees earlier, and they were bullying the littler one. And they didn't seem to be too clever really, they just looked dirty and bored.” He paused for a breath, his brow furrowed with the effort of concentration. “But these dolphins are friends, they are working together. And they seem to be so clever compared to the chimps.”
Mr Baxter's brow furrowed in imitation of the younger participant's expression. He cleared his throat and spoke carefully, measuring each word.
“Well, Jack, that is an interesting idea.” His hand returned to scratching his chin thoughtfully. “Have you ever heard of the missing link?”
Jack shook his head, eye's firmly fixed on his teacher.
“Well, there is a period where there is a gap in the fossil record between humans and apes. There are many theories about why that happened, but one seems particularly relevant to our conversation.” He paused for a moment to allow his words to sink in. Jack looked on, tapping his leg expectantly.
“It has been suggested that man went through an amphibious phase, living by the shore and venturing out to sea to hunt. Some have theorised that this may account for the prevalence of webbed feet and hands among the populace, and possibly even the vestigial gills seen on fetuses.” He looked at his charge, trying to gauge his reaction.
Jack's face was expressionless, waiting eagerly for the punchline.
“To me it seems unlikely that evolution would have moved in such a way. Yet still, there are a lot of differences between apes and us. For example, we are the only ape that can swim underwater due to the unusual shape of our noses, and our body hair is designed to give good aqua-dynamic properties.” Once again he gathered his thoughts. Once again Jack waited with bated breath.
“Arguably, it is possible that the mainstream view has it very wrong. Maybe our ancestors were actually fully aquatic, evolved from dolphins and emerged from the sea. The lack of evidence could be explained by the shifting of the sea bed, grinding any potential fossils into sand.”
“Wow!” Jack exclaimed, “do you really think that's true?”
Mr Coney caught Jack's excited gaze, and spoke calmly and clearly.
“To be honest Jack, not really. The genetic evidence suggests otherwise. However, a scientist should never shy away from considering every possibility, no matter how unlikely. Have I told you about Occam's Razor?” A raised eyebrow prompted Jack to speak.
“Yes, you taught us about it last week. I think you used a quote from Sherlock Holmes.”
“Ah well. That was rather prescient of me.” Mr Baxter took another large lick of the disintegrating ice-cream, “I should have mentioned that quote is in fact that is somewhat of a simplification of the true Razor, however for our purposes it is an ideal maxim. Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Jack's gaze remained focused on his teacher.
“The problem, oftentimes, is that many possibilities are disregarded as being impossible without being given the proper consideration. It is all too easy to blindly follow the beaten path.” His hand reached up to clear the perspiration that was gathering in his eyebrows, “however, the real progress is made by those who push far outside what is considered to be the truth. If Copernicus, or Darwin, or Einstein had not alienated themselves from the theories of their contemporaries, we could still be living in the centre of the universe, on a 12,000 year old planet with absolutely no idea about the nature of the fabric of our reality.”
“So, we aren't evolved from dolphins then?” Disappointment laced Jack's words.
“Well, I wouldn't go that far. All a rational scientist can ever say these days is that it seems highly improbable. Those infernal quantum physicists and their conceptual cats have deprived us of all certainty, for the time being.” Jack's face fell slightly, and the teacher responded. “In reality, dolphins can have a nasty streak too, you know. They bully, and kill, just the same as the rest of the animal kingdom.”
"So we're all as bad as each other, then?"
“Perhaps, for now. But that, my young friend, is not to say that we have to behave like our ancestors. We have evolved, and been given the freedom to choose. Something that not many animals can really equal. As such, to blame our evolutionary history for our failings is to deny our ability as humans to behave in a rational and considered manner.”
Jack's face brightened.
“The sad thing is that few people will accept their own power in that regard. It is much easier to have a scapegoat than to realise that we are all at fault, through our own willingness to accept the terrible things we do as a species.”
Jack frowned slightly, then brightened.
“Maybe we just haven't evolved far enough yet to realise that we can choose. Maybe in the future we will be able to stop hurting each other.”
Mr Baxter allowed a wry smile to pass his lips. “I hope you're right kiddo. I really do.”
The pair turned back to the pool, and watched silently as the dolphins effortlessly towed their trainers through the water, a knowing smile permanently etched on their faces.