Of course, like many others, I have my criticisms of ArtScroll's revisionism in some places, and I am deeply disappointed at their having omitted Rav Hirsch's critical letters on Aggadata from Shemesh Marpe. But they handle mermaids with great wisdom.
Today, Daf Yomi reaches the topic of "the people of the sea," which I discuss at length in my book Sacred Monsters. In brief: The Gemara provides a perfectly accurate account of dolphins. Rashi, however, for reasons that I discuss in my book, (mis)understood the Gemara to be referring to mermaids. Which, in the view of most (but not all) people, do not exist.
Now, Rav Aharon Feldman, in his much-criticized defense of the ban on my books, claimed that it is only Chazal (the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud) that have divinely-acquired infallible knowledge about the natural world, and not the Rishonim (the scholars of the medieval period). And Dr. Marc Shapiro recently suggested that "that the opponents of Slifkin do not assume that together with Hazal the greatest rishonim are also infallible on scientific matters."
But it is abundantly clear that for many, many people in the charedi (and even non-charedi) world, it is unthinkable to say that the Rishonim erred in anything. Rishonim k'malachim! I remember only too well how furious many people were at my pointing out that elephants don't jump, contrary to the statement of one of the Tosafists. And when it comes to Rashi, the most beloved of all Rishonim, who is said to have written with ruach hakodesh (however one understands that), people recoil in horror at the notion that he could have been wrong about anything,
But on the other hand, the Gemara is obviously talking about dolphins. It even calls them dolphins.
So let's see how Artscroll handles it in their footnote:
“There are marine animals,” writes Rashi, “half of whose bodies are of human form, and half in the form of a fish. They are called sereine in French.” Rashi clearly refers to mermen (the French sereine derives from Latin siren, meaning mermaid), whose existence was widely accepted in the ancient and medieval world and indeed until recent centuries. (According to Raavad in his commentary to Toras Kohanim 3:7, sirens are mentioned as well in Toras Kohanim ibid.) As understood by Rashi, then, the Baraisa teaches that humans and mermen can interbreed.
Others suggest that the dolphins of the Baraisa are none other than the familiar dolphins of the order Cetaceans. These endothermic (warm-blooded) air-breathing mammals “reproduce as do humans” (following the variant kbnei adam) in that they copulate ventrum to ventrum (the manner ascribed to humans later in the Baraisa), bear live young, suckle their calves, and rear them intensively for six or seven years, to near adulthood. Dolphins were known by very similar names in the milieu of the Baraisa: Latin delphinus, from Greek delphis. Delphis is related to delphys, meaning womb, so that the genitive delphinos probably denoted [a sea creature] possessed of a womb; the very name dolfinin thus suggests that the animals in question “reproduce as do humans.” Rav Yehudah may have called dolphins sons (or people) of the sea because of their affinity for humans (they commonly approach and accompany boats), and because they often evince humanlike intelligence in their behaviors and social interactions.
Brilliant! They manage to make it clear to more enlightened readers that the Gemara is actually referring to dolphins, while not offending traditionalists by explicitly pointing out that Rashi's explanation is not correct.
Now, some people might be asking why I don't manage to emulate ArtScroll and have a more circumspect "tone." The answer is twofold. First of all, they are writing a very brief footnote. I wrote a full-length book on such topics; when discussing something in so much detail, it's impossible to remain ambiguous. Second, we are writing for different audiences. I am writing for enlightened people who want a thorough discussion of a topic in which the author says it straight rather than using weasel words and ambiguity. ArtScroll, on the other hand, is writing for a much broader audience, including many who are much further to the right, and must be more careful.
And so, while it's not the way that I deal with this topic, I congratulate ArtScroll on the way that they handled it. I would be grateful if readers who attend Daf Yomi can tell me what their maggid shiur said about this topic, as well as what he said about egg-laying bats and gestation periods.