Op-Ed: Don’t Believe the Lies You Hear About Dolphin Intelligence

No, dolphins are not ‘thugs’ or ‘dumber than chickens.’

Dolphin Intelligence: Don't Believe the Lies You Hear

A wild bottlenose dolphin. (Jeff Rotman/Getty)

Laura Bridgeman is a Program Associate with the Earth Island Institute's Dolphin Project.

There has been a recent spate of articles claiming that dolphins are “thugs” and “dumber than chickens.” Not only do these articles read as though they were written by high school troublemakers, but they also make false claims and disseminate misleading information that is at odds with current scientific understandings of dolphin and animal cognition.  

One of those claims, made in the Daily Mail, is that since some dolphins kill smaller porpoises without any interest in eating them, they are less morally and cognitively sophisticated.

“Readers should not confuse aggressiveness with intelligence,” says Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University. “Humans are very intelligent and also very aggressive. Dolphins are very intelligent and they can also be aggressive. The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.” We humans should hope not, as we are the only species that commits mass genocide and so frequently murders our own kind.

The articles go on to assert that dolphins are “less sophisticated than chickens” because “they do not seem to have alarm calls or food calls.” While it is true that we do not yet fully understand how dolphins communicate, this does not mean they are not communicating. The fact that they do not have readily observable alarm or food calls could even indicate their communication is more nuanced and complex than we understand at this time.

One indicator of how complex dolphin communication may be is revealed in a compelling study conducted by Louis Herman. He asked a pair of dolphins to “tandem create,” meaning to select or create a behavior of their own choosing and carry it out at the same time. Says Herman of the experiment, “Typically, the pair will first swim about side by side, generally for a longer time than when given a specific behavior to perform synchronously, then apparently select some behavior in common and execute it in close synchrony.” While Herman admits that he was not able to determine how the dolphins managed this task, it creates compelling reasons to suppose dolphins have ways of rapidly communicating complex information to one another.

While it has been discovered that other species of animals possess similar cognitive abilities, this does not mean that dolphins are somehow less intelligent or worthy of our respect. “That would be like making the logical error of concluding humans are dumb because other species share some of our cognitive characteristics,” says Marino.

And share we do. The dolphin brain has many intriguing structural similarities to our own, including a large limbic system and complex cerebral cortex—associated with emotional and logical information processing, respectively—and the presence of spindle cell neurons, which are associated with social cognition. This may explain why our species share many behavioral similarities, such as living in highly complex social societies.

These and other scientific facts form the basis for conferring basic rights—in other words, protections—onto dolphins. These include the rights to life, liberty and freedom from harm—essentially, the right to live in peace without human interference. Conferring these rights first requires that dolphins be considered legal “persons.” However, nonhuman personhood does not include the right to vote. And it is unlikely dolphins will have Twitter accounts in the near future.

Arguments for dolphin personhood are based upon the scientific knowledge that dolphins likely experience emotions, along with the pain that can result from emotional and physical injury. Traditionally, it was believed that animals were unable to experience any pain or suffering and therefore had no need for rights. The more we learn about dolphin and animal cognition, however, the more we are obligated to ascribe legal protections in order to reduce their suffering. Because suffer they do, and sometimes terribly so at our hands.

It is becoming increasingly accepted that, as we learn more about animal cognition in general, previously held notions of human intellectual superiority are inaccurate. As long ago as 1992, the leading neuroscience journal, Brain, Behavior and Evolution, declared an end to using the scale of nature in discussions of brain evolution, stating that “vague, subjective descriptors such as ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ (intelligence) should be avoided when referring to animal groups.” The question of intelligence has evolved into investigations of different kinds of intelligence, not degrees or amount.

The concept of nonhuman personhood is becoming accepted, as can be seen in the recent statement issued by the Indian government that dolphins should be considered nonhuman persons. The time has come, in the continued evolution of human understanding, for dolphins and animals to get better and more enlightened treatment at our hands.

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