Dolphin Intelligence | Should They Have Rights?
Comparatively speaking, marine cetaceans possess cognitive abilities that are currently understood to only be the capability of elephants, great apes, corvids and of course, humans. Much research has been dedicated to studying these characteristics and how they should be considered within how our ethics are be shaped with animal captivity. Dr. Lori Marino is a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University, and she teaches animal welfare, brain imaging and comparative neuroanatomy (the study of the similarities and differences between species). She is one of the scientific community’s leading voices and advocates of rights for cetaceans and other non-humans. Having studied marine mammals for over 20 years, she states that she believes that dolphins and whales are not fit for captivity because they are culturally rich, have complex societies, and are self-aware.
First, let's define what current research supports in terms of cetacean cognition and intelligence.
Dolphin Cognitive Characteristics
- Self-awareness (meta-cognitive reasoning, introspection)
- Futuristic awareness/planning
- 'Complex' language
- Understating numerical continuity and less vs.more
- Complex problem-solving strategies
- Processing basic syntax (human taught)
- Tool use
- Responding with 'creative' conceptualization
- Novel learning (generational passage of knowledge)
The attributes of the cetacean brain
Researchers have examined many possibilities in determining how to 'measure' intelligence through physical attributes of the brain, but there's a tremendous amount of variation in the animal kingdom where brain size, brain features, and brain complexities vary based on the dominant function of the organism and the size of the animal that the brain is in. First, there's the measurement of mere brain size, in which animals for the most part that have more complexities to their intelligence will possess a higher brain to body mass ratio. This puts dolphins second to humans, but also puts the tree shrew on the same level of the cetaceans. Sperm whales possess the largest brain of any mammal, about 7.8kg on average in mature males.
The encephalization quotient is a more complex and accurate measurement which defines the relative brain size as the ratio between actual brain mass and predicted brain mass for an animal of a given size, which takes into account allometric effects. With humans (of course) at the top with an approximate 7.44 (although the hummingbird has a 9.0), the EQ differs among the cetaceans. One example is the orca whale (a type of dolphin) which has an EQ of about 2.57 while the bottlenose dolphins have 4.14-5.3.
Elephants, humans, dolphins, and great apes are the only animals known to have spindle cells, and all of these animals are capable of complex tasks. These cells appear to be convergent in intelligent species. Animals that are considered to be intelligent and have complex social instincts all have high neocortex ratios (not all the parts of the brain are dedicated towards cognitive tasks).
Lori Marino, Namio A Rose, and other scientists that support the non-human rights movement suggest that the brains of cetaceans are similarly complex to that of a human, having evolved with the framework required for complex tasks and abilities. Interestingly, cetacean and elephant brains are larger and have more complex attributes than great apes, an animal we would expect to have the highest levels of complexity based on their strong similarities to humans.
I often hear people fancifully try to pass dolphins off as smarter than humans, suggesting that the fact that they have flippers and an aquatic lifestyle is the only thing keeping them from some of the accomplishments or abilities of humans. Yet, from my understanding of the current research, it's plausible that the cetacean's aquatic environment (in combination with other factors, as dugongs are an example of a fully aquatic mammal that do not possess these characteristics) prompted the evolution of their existing cognitive abilities. Cetaceans for instance uniquely possess the ability to use echolocation, a process they evolved for efficient navigation of their oceanic environment. This complex task requires a high level of cognition and grey matter in the brain. Cetaceans have brains rigged to process sounds far more effectively than humans, with their neural area that is devoted to visual processing being about 1/10 that of the human brain. Primate brains devote more volume to visual processing over almost every other animal, but this alone cannot be responsible for human intelligence.
Cetaceans are also voluntary breathers, making anesthesia impossible as they must consciously control their breathing. Research shows that dolphins sleep with only one hemisphere of their brain at a time, unlike terrestrial mammals. This alone can contribute to advanced brain features.
Then of course, there is the fact that dolphins are extremely social, establish complex hierarchies and must be able to process the actions of other individuals within the aquatic environment. Animals that are social in this way pretty much all have more complex cognition, and this is even true with lions (highly social) vs. tigers (solitary), in which lions are thought to be more demanding in captivity. This does give cetaceans some higher 'awareness' that they are touted for, and they are also observational learners with a vested interest in the actions of others.
Whatever the case may be for the dolphin's unique characteristics, I often see people misunderstanding evolution, believing it means that animals are constantly 'advancing' (I call it the 'X-men theory', this movie/comic book perpetuates the same mindset). No they aren't, they are adapting to their environments. Cetaceans have held the same level of intelligence for millions of years. Human modernization as we know it occurred a mere 50,000 years ago.
Dolphin and human awareness, one in the same?
Exhibiting self-awareness is probably the most essential cognitive attribute that cetaceans, elephants, and great apes possess, and it is often touted as a reason why it is wrong to keep such animals in captivity. Lori Marino used mirrors to prove that the animals possess the ability, revealing that dolphins, just like great apes, respond to their reflection the way human children do. The 'mark test' was used to prove that such interactions were not deceptive; when a mark was placed on the animals being tested without their knowledge, they utilized the mirror to further inspect it. Only one elephant so far has passed this test. Magpies, a corvid bird similar to a crow, have also passed this test (again, some individuals haven't). With these results two things can be understood; the evidence strongly supports that such animals realize they are viewing themselves in the mirror, and, the animals that passed actually have an interest in their current condition, as the mark they addressed was of interest to them. This probably would not be the case with other animals that are less visually inclined.
However, it’s one thing to perceive the existence of yourself in the mirror, and another to be able to be to grasp the concept that you 'should' have rights that need to be protected.
Lori Marino, while expressing anti-sentiment for nearly all animal captivity (and meat-eating) has described that it is even more unethical to subject dolphins to captivity because they 'understand what is happening to them', implying that the animals mindfully crave to be freed. I can actually consider that the capacity for an animal to suffer in captivity is increased by high brain activity and socialistic tendencies, but to say that the animal possess the same sentiment that humans do about captivity or confinement (whether or not it's harmful to them) is another subject. I believe that the similarities between human and dolphin psychological conditions are superficial. While there may be complex mechanisms occurring in 'bigger brained' cetaceans, their outlooks on life likely differ from ours from my observations. This isn't to say that the animals appreciate being removed from the wild, but I'm not convinced that keeping such animals in captive environments involves the same thought processes as with humans and that we are committing 'modern day slavery' with aquariums that hold cetaceans (how would we disprove the same for any other animal?). There are plenty of examples of captive cetaceans that have been reluctant to leave once released.
Magpies pass the mirror test
I believe a far more pivotal aspect of the human condition is our innate curiosity about the world around us that exceeds that of other animals. I believe that human beliefs and ideologies stem from our desire to wrap our surroundings into an understandable context so that we don't have to drive ourselves crazy over pondering questions such as "what is the purpose-?"
Going back to my assessment on the results of the mark test, it is certainly interesting that some of the subjects investigated the mark on themselves. That is the basis of the introspective qualities of human behavior, but our insightful abilities extend far beyond the self, and result in our advanced manipulations (hands also help). Human interest in the outer environment is unparalleled. We even take into consideration the emotions and needs of other species that are far less similar to us. I believe that most or all of our 'great leap forward' has all of its ground work in the development of human language. Simply put, the fact that you're reading this and that I'm writing this, reveals why I find the sentence "dolphins are smarter than humans" nothing short of preposterous. And in fact, I feel almost silly for having to explain why.
Then there are my qualms about an animal’s reaction to the mirror test proving or disproving their 'awareness'.
The mirror test and other species
The ability to recognize oneself in the mirror is a pretty impressive cognitive feat. What feels so obvious and natural to us is an enlightening experience to view occurring with another animal species. However, while the mirror test may ‘prove’ that cetaceans are self-aware, does it disprove that other animals aren’t? Marino’s studies show that dogs and cats ignore their reflection, and many monkey species react to their image on the mirror as though they think it’s another monkey. Surely this must prove that other animals are just unconscious and instinctual while dolphins, elephants, and great apes have a more meaningful understanding of their own existence. However, the mirror test is radically discriminatory against non-visually inclined species. Other species-specific characteristics would cause an animal to fail the mirror test even if it had a notable level of awareness.
The difference between animal and human behavior: Instinct vs. Artificial behavior
There are clear cut evolutionary advantages for around 99 percent of every display of intelligence that cetaceans are honored for. Why is this significant? A defining characteristic of human beings is that they are unusually perceptive about their environmental features and develop advanced individualistic societal traits even in ‘primitive’ societies. While much of human behavior can be described as having a foundation in an instinctual trait which contributes to our resulting emotion, it’s obvious that human behavior is difficult or impossible to classify as a stable and expected behavioral occurrence. Art and expressionism for example have no clear-cut advantage in producing viable offspring (the main ‘motivation’ of evolution that animals are expected to select traits for), however, it seems to play an integral role to the human condition, with its occurrence varying tremendously among human cultures and within those cultures themselves. Much of what humans do are not obviously linked to basic survival instincts although we can speculate how these behavioral occurrences can have roots in selective pressures.
An Example: Pilot Whales
Pilot whales for an example are highly social dolphins that develop complex social structures in the wild, but humans see this as similar to our own emotional bonds. But do the whales ‘see’ it that way, or are their social traits more instinctual than inherently or consciously ‘emotional’? Pilot whales are known for being the cetacean most likely to beach themselves in large groups…even returning to the same spot after humans toil to push them back into the ocean (it has been occurring since before humans invented sonar technology). It is thought that maybe the animals do this when one high-ranking member of their pod beaches on land due to illness and the others follow. The other members of the pod may not want to abandon this family member and strand themselves, along with healthy adults and babies, and can die in masses. This may seem to a human to be the ultimate act of ‘compassion,’ but I see this as a completely irrational and thoughtless adherence to a social instinct. Humans have even helped some pilot whales by bringing the babies out to sea and luring the adults to them as they responded to their babies’ distress calls. This tells me that the whales technically didn’t ‘want’ to kill themselves but that they were following an instinct, one that humans were able to manipulate to save them. I have trouble thinking of human equivalents to this behavior.
What is it about humans that qualify them for human rights? Is the size of their brains? Or perhaps their ability to determine the mathematical concept of ‘less and more’?
Is my understanding of my reflection in the mirror the key to my privilege of a human right? Why do human rights even exist? The reason why I find it extremely important to be skeptical about Marino’s claims is because I am not seeing convincing reasons why other animals would be exempt from her criteria (perhaps she does not either). Brain size and complexity alone are poor reasons to suggest the animals are our 'equivalents', depending on how one sees this. Even with an animal grasping some of the more simple concepts of ‘math’ and syntax, I think it is obvious that this cognitive ability is limited and doesn’t make whales rational ‘non-human people’ to the complex level of the human experience. Of course, if we simplify the defining characteristics of humans or 'person-hood', the definition can apply to many animals.
I am not a person who will say, 'look, humans have gone to space, they build buildings and cars, so therefore they are obviously more 'intelligent'. As is obvious, dolphins can't do those things because they have flippers (however, dolphins are congratulated as 'more intelligent' by some people for their lack of 'destroying the earth', and not having nuclear wars like humans do...not one of them suggesting that maybe this is because they do not have that capability). So instead of comparing animals and noting that humans have been to space, ect. (I myself am not capable of designing a space ship or being able to use one), I'm more interested in whether or not these non-human animals care about the existence of space, since they have eyes, and can look up and see it.
Look at the photo adjacent to this passage that depicts the famous drawing by genius Leonardo Da Vinci. Would I expect a dolphin to be able to accomplish the same feat? No. But here's how I see it; an animal as 'intelligent' as a human should be able to consider this picture, as this denotes a high level of awareness. Not all humans are capable of artistic talent, but they are all capable of recognizing what the photo depicts, understanding why it is 'brilliant', and are able to appreciate the talent that produced it. Perhaps much of that has to do with experience and understanding that can only come from the absurd complexities of the human language. This is what human language results in, and that hardly scratches the surface of the human mind. I would expect similarly intelligent animals to be able to exhibit the same level of cognitive complexity in relation to features and animals of their environment, as well as observe evolution in their 'culture'.
So therefore, it isn't really all that surprising why humans would ‘assume’ that cetaceans are not ‘human-like’. Activists would denote that it is it due to some alleged form of species-specific bigotry, yet it is not unreasonable to consider that a highly intelligent species would believe they could observe if another species had similar intelligence to their own. In fact, I would go as far to say that in our current culture we are far more open to accepting animal intelligence and emotions than we’ve ever been, and it often extends to an irrational point. I know my own dog, but there are many instances of people telling me that she is exhibiting a humanized action when I know better. Many people are prone to thinking that their dogs and other animals are simply furry people. I believe that these feelings could also worm their way even into members of the scientific community.
Of course, there are plenty of people who think humans have no business being around any animals or using them in any way, and this is the animal rights rhetoric that I am against. This mentality suggests that riding horses is slavery, eating meat is homicide, and keeping a cat indoors is holding them prisoner. Consistent followers of these beliefs, in order to not be hypocritical, would have to support the belief that human benefit is not a fit reason for keeping animals of any kind. I believe people are morally entitled to their own free will to live their lives outside of the opinions and emotional sentiment of others (outside of actual cruelty and unnecessary, unnatural killing). When people use rhetoric such as “that animal belongs in the wild” they are suggesting that I have no right to keep my animals because their existence did not spring from my room. The world is not that simple.
Animal Intelligence and Ethics
The essential argument of Marino and like-minded people are that these animals can suffer more because of their awareness. They highlight situations such as when whales grieve over the loss of a friend or baby, anecdotal evidence of 'suicide' and what is believed to be depression in some cases, regarding capture and captivity. However, you will not find too many dog owners who believe that dogs cannot experience these emotions, and I’m sure plenty of other animals who have not been proven to be self-aware experience their own forms of grief as well. What right would we have to discriminate against them anyway, considering dolphins barely have to measure up to human feats in order to maintain our same rights.
Dolphins in Captivity
Dolphins (especially orcas) may have troubled rates of survivability in aquariums but this probably has nothing to do with their supposed heightened awareness. Captivity is tougher on this species due to their needs that are harder to meet because they live a fully aquatic life that restricts how they may be assisted in an aquarium (space being an obvious factor). One example is that orca whales often have life-threatening dental ailments because they file their teeth down on the metal of their enclosures in the process of establishing dominance to the other residents. Some groups of orca whales cause similar issues to their teeth in the wild when they choose to exclusively feed on tough-skinned animals like sharks, and that also leads to early death. The wild orcas that do this did not die due to mental suffering but to another condition of their existence. However, the unnatural scenario of orca whales establishing dominance in captivity in such a manner strongly needs to be addressed with captive orcas.
Bottlenose dolphins are a species that have better chances of longevity in captivity, unlike other species of dolphins and porpoises. It all depends on their relative sensitivities or complicating conditions of confinement. These animals even die early and have stressors in the wild that may possibly lead to their self-inflicted beaching and mass deaths (a phenomenon most common in pilot whales). Great white sharks are another non-self aware species that are also unsuitable for captivity, currently. The star of Jaws would probably make an amazing cash cow but their poor survival rates in captivity make their broad introduction to aquariums unfeasible. Not all animal captivity will go 'swimmingly'. It is a science. But we can do our best to support proper welfare standards for the animals in our care, and keep seeking to improve it by all means possible so people can care for and experience these animals up close.
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