Are dolphins dumb?

Are Dolphins DumbDolphins are certainly not dumb, but there’s more to the story of dolphin intelligence than most people would like to believe.

Ever since the neuroscientist John C. Lilly declared dolphins to be “more intelligent than any man or woman,” the public has had a love affair with our big-brained cousins of the sea. In the fifty years since Lilly first arrived on the scene, researchers have compiled a laundry list of cognitive feats displayed by dolphins that give us good reason to suspect that they are intelligent animals. Much of this evidence is making its way into powerful arguments by advocacy groups calling for increased rights and protection for dolphins based on their intellectual capacities. Some argue that dolphin intelligence is so extraordinary that we have a moral obligation to treat them better.

Not all scientists are necessarily on board with the idea of extraordinary dolphin intelligence, however. Professor Paul Manger (of “dolphins are dumber than goldfish” fame) recently published a scientific article arguing that the evidence of advanced dolphin cognition does not hold up to scrutiny. And I am publishing a book in a few weeks titled “Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth” wherein I take a sober look at all of the claims of dolphin extraordinariness. Unlike Manger, I argue that dolphins do in fact display startling skill in some of the areas we associate with intelligence, like symbol use and social cognition. But I also argue that when we put dolphin intelligence in context by looking at the intelligent behavior displayed by other species, and by coming to grips with how little we know about animal cognition in general, the argument for dolphin intellectual superiority gets doused with a bucket of cold, salty water.

These are the main arguments from Are Dolphins really Smart?

–> Dolphins do a lot of complex things like use tools, hunt cooperatively, transmit learned behaviors via something akin to culture, live in extremely complex social groups, play complex games, display altruistic behavior, etc. But most of these behaviors are no longer considered all that unusual in the animal kingdom and are thus not extraordinary. They’re observed in a great many species, from insects to birds to fish.

Scientists understand very little about the way dolphin brain size and brain structure relates to their behavior, or whether or not things like the Encephalization Quotient (EQ), cortex size, or the presence of von Economo neurons are valid indicators of intelligence.

Although dolphins pass the mirror self-recognition test (MSR), scientists don’t really understand what this means in terms of the kind of self-awareness dolphins possess, or how this relates to the idea of consciousness. These are difficult things to study in non-human animals, and scientists are constantly arguing over what these types of experiments say about animal minds.

Although dolphins display competence in cognitive tests involving problem solving, memory, symbol use, object permanence, and planning, other species that we don’t historically associate with extreme intelligence (like scrub jays, parrots, pigeons, and domestic dogs) sometimes perform better on these tests than dolphins.

Although dolphins are unusually good at learning to understand symbol systems in experimental settings, it’s probably not the case that dolphins have their own language which is as complex as human language. It’s also unlikely that they’ll one day learn to use an artificial symbol system to hold complex conversations with human beings.

Scientists understand next to nothing about how dolphins experience their emotions, or the extent to which they have complex emotions like empathy or grief.

Dolphins are not abnormally peaceful animals that live in harmony with their environment. They show exactly the right mix of aggressive and friendly behavior that you’d expect from a long lived, socially complex carnivore.

If dolphin intelligence turns out to be more standard than special, does this mean that the high-profile campaigns for dolphin rights or dolphin protection don’t have a leg to stand on? No, this is not the case. Science alone has little to say on the issue of welfare or rights. Science simply produces naked facts that are then fed into a moral Cuisinart which churns out ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ edicts that depend entirely on the predilections of the chef. In fact, many animal conservation and welfare efforts focus not on the intellectual capacities of animals, but solely on their ability to suffer.  A species need not be an intellectual giant to nonetheless deserve to be free of unnecessary pain and suffering. Or to be given the chance to avoid extinction.

And even those ethical arguments that are based on the intelligence of dolphins need not be shaken by the revelation that science knows precious little about dolphin minds. Advocates have a very powerful strategy in suggesting that if there’s even a little evidence suggesting that dolphins might have intellectual capacities that render them in need of special attention, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. And this is a position that is not easily opposed given the ambiguous nature of the findings concerning animal cognition. But, there is also plenty of wiggle room to argue that a large number of species should also fall under this ‘err on the side of caution’ heading, like chickens, rats, and pigs. It’s more a matter of taste than of science in terms of where we should draw the line. The intersection of science and ethics churns up fertile ground in which philosophers and advocates are free to plant their seeds. Dolphin extraordinariness is but one in a myriad of possible shoots to emerge.

The bottom line is that we’re seeing more and more evidence that animals like insects, cephalopods and fish display cognitive capacities that easily fall under the heading of intelligent. Dolphins will certainly never be re-classified as dumb animals, but as the field of animal cognition continues to provide us with evidence of intelligence scattered across the animal kingdom, dolphins might well find themselves facing stiff competition for the title of second most intelligent animal. And some of that competition might be coming from those species we currently find in our pet stores, if not on our dinner plates.

Are Dolphins Really Smart? is not a book about the stupidity of dolphins. It’s a book about the underappreciated intelligence of the other species with which we share this planet. It’s also a confession as to how little science really understands about the animal mind. In the end, I leave the reader with this final message: “Dolphins are marvelous, wondrous, and charismatic animals, but if we can stop looking at them through the narrow lens of the human condition by which we judge them as “special,” we might open our minds and our hearts to the fact that many other species—from sharks to earwigs to rats—lead equally as wondrous and worthy lives.”

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Published on September 08, 2013 00:27
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