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Why Do Some People Think Dolphins are Smarter than Humans?
'Awareness' in animals
The Earth’s crust is populated with life forms that possess endless forms of morphology, physiology, and behaviors that have evolved amidst continuously changing environments. Among them, many warm-blooded animals possess complex, cognitive, characteristics that embellish them to have a 'higher level of consciousness' or interactive awareness of their surroundings.
It would seem that most invertebrates are hard-wired to react to stimulus that should be present in the environment they've evolved in (cephalopods are an exception, which reveals that there is no concrete plan for where these qualities show up in animals), while mammals and birds have more complexities to their mental functioning. Among even this group of animals, a few individual species possess a heightened ability in processing their environment, other animals, and more interestingly, themselves.
Dolphin Intelligence: Let's Get Real
It seems as though I always have to be the 'bad guy' for the sake of common sense and logic. Dolphins and other cetaceans are known to be some of the ‘smartest’ animals in the world beside humans, along with elephants, great apes, and corvids (the 'crow' family), however, despite the existence of no convincing evidence, many people believe that they are almost as smart, as smart, or even smarter than humans. Well, I’m not going to say ‘zero evidence’. There is also evidence that aliens have visited Earth, so possibly, there is also some that dolphins possess more 'intelligence' than humans. But it really depends on how you (wish to) see things.
Although I would argue that what humans seem to possess over other animals shouldn't technically be classified as mere 'smarts', how a person defines the term intelligence is tantamount to how they perceive the intelligence of cetaceans and humans.
Intelligence can be measured by rate of learning, what an animal is capable of learning such as abstract concepts, measuring the extent of an animal's creative solution to a novel situation, self-awareness, and memorization ability. (Click here for a look at these characteristics in dolphins.)
Most importantly and more relevantly, intelligence can be defined as awareness. These are all areas that humans have excelled in, so dolphins would have their work cut out for them to beat humans and present these qualities in an observable fashion.
'Intelligent' behaviors should also be separated from behaviors that are innate. It may be of course, difficult to assess these levels of 'intelligence' among another species without possible error deriving from an anthropomorphized view of intelligence and relation to the human condition (more on that later).
Dolphins have fins, I realize this. So I cannot judge them on their short-comings with activities in which dexterity predisposes humans to success. However, that is not an adequate excuse for the many observable characteristics of dolphins that indicate that they appear to have a higher degree of an instinctual relationship with their surroundings when compared to humans.
While some (not all) dolphins are playful and curious in ways that is not often seen in the rest of the animal kingdom, much of their behavior is oriented around more 'natural' needs; that of gathering food, social hierarchy, protecting territory, and avoiding predation.
Something else that I find interesting is that these animals do not seem to make intelligent connections toward the role humans may play in their possible predation. This is essential because while it might be hard to disprove that another species might have their own species-driven reasons for not having interest in concepts we relate to a higher mental state (music, art, language, technology) that are important to humans, avoiding death (and increasing fitness) is a fundamental interest of every living thing.
To quickly synopsis the current consensus on dolphin capabilities: they seem to be capable of behaviors and cognitive abilities that exceed other animals like dogs, monkeys, and pinipeds. In even more specific tests, they have demonstrated proficiency in some concepts that have exceeded the abilities of chimpanzees (such as understanding objects that are being pointed to), however this may be influenced by the fact that dolphins have a unique spatial relationship with their surroundings that primates do not possess due to their echo-locative abilities.
It may not be so much an example of enhanced 'intelligence' as it is a unique sensory ability (combined with an extant level of awareness), so the role that this unusual sense plays in many of these studies needs to be considered.
Cetaceans have been shown to be self-aware like chimps, elephants, and some corvids, reacting to their mirror image with interest and awareness that it is themselves being depicted. They have higher levels of observational learning, can come up with some 'creative solutions', and have been taught some basic syntax by humans.
Humans teach dolphins
All this, however interesting and desperately needing more research committed to it (creating a case for dolphin captivity to continue as well) does not provide evidence for the ridiculous proposition that dolphins are smarter than humans. Common sense would drive one to realize that a dolphin would not be able to 'learn syntax' without human aid (operant conditioning), and that our command of this and the other aforementioned qualities are unparalleled.
Very few, if any 'intelligent' skills that animals have been tested for have shown them to come out on top of homo sapiens. It is also amazing, I think, that we have such a vested interest in communicating with this species in their own language (not nearly reciprocated by them to the same degree). I think it's clear language is a major part of human 'intelligence'.
Without this incredible development, nothing...from myself writing on this computer, to humans inventing computers, to humans even thinking about inventing a computer, would be possible.
Lacking a language that can communicate such essential information that consists of ideas, readings of our immediate environment and providing complex insight into our internal individual needs will have a profound effect on how an animal perceives its environment.
Therefore, dolphins lacking a truly complex language that cannot communicate for instance...the sentence "the sky is blue", are going to be strictly disadvantaged. I have learned that humans are only as smart as what they learn. Spanish, French, and Swahili are certainly not innate languages and are 100% artificial. Grunt at a human for their entire childhood, and they will know nothing better. This has been observed with the so-called feral children.
Human babies are born the most helpless out of all of the intelligent animals and birds. There is an interesting theory that human language developed through mother communication to a helpless infant.
Whatever the case may be for our unique qualities, there are clearly fundamental differences between humans and dolphins, with dolphins clearly being disadvantaged due to what they lack compared to humans.
It's feasible I believe that some animals could have similar 'intelligence' to humans based on current evidence if we were to analyze elements such as memory capacity and some more basic mathematical concepts that can be achieved without the advantage of the heightened informational exchange that exists in the complex human language forms.
Some may try to make the case that dolphins are intelligent in other species-specific ways (social, environmental, or some form of awareness that we are incapable of understanding), or relative to the features that they lack. Well, I think the same can be said for many more animals.
Humans have an inherent desire to glamorize dolphins
I often hear the claim, "dolphins are definitely smarter than humans". "Dolphins are smarter than some people". "Dolphins are too smart for captivity".
When I ask them to back up their statement, the response I usually receive is precisely one of these three sentiments:
- Backtracking, and criticism on my part for having even asked the question.
- A description of a feat that a dolphin has accomplished, such as teaching young to hunt, tool-use, or 'helping' humans to fish...which of course, does not exceed a human's ability to do the same thing in the least bit.
- An explanation that amounts to 'dolphins are more intelligent because they don't destroy the planet, aren't greedy, and don't start wars like humans'.
When it comes to the subject of cetacean attributes, throughout my research of this subject I end up being more amazed by human behavior over the accomplishments that dolphins have exhibited. Many people appear to have some form of a moral obligation to elevate this specific species’ status over humans in almost every situation.
Why do humans become so angry at this question?
What many people don't seem to understand is this: When I propose that dolphins are not as intelligent as humans, I’m surely not suggesting that they are not intelligent at all and should be treated like an inanimate object, but the level of offense that people take over this issue is near religious, and they then behave as though I am oppressing a minority group.
Once, I was called ‘evil’ for suggesting that dolphins possess the intelligence of a 2 year old human. Being labeled words like ‘arrogant’, egotistical, and other versions of maintaining an ignorant and unsubstantiated superiority complex is common.
More on the violence of cetaceans
- Dolphins Are Getting Away with Murder
The purpose of this hub is to debunk the fanciful myth that dolphins and killer whales are superior to humans in conducting an ethical way of living, and I question if they are capable of possessing complex ethical thoughts to begin with.
How can humans be the only 'smart' animal?
I understand that it is odd that humans are so different from the rest of the animals. This is an obvious contributor toward our mentality that we are 'not animals' or that we should be the Earth's 'stewards'. Yet, it would still be equally odd if such intelligent qualities were only limited to humans and dolphins.
My understanding is that much of a human’s need to appreciate dolphins is something of a self-inflicted fantasy, or a guilt trip due to the human's dominant position in the animal kingdom.
It is extraordinarily common for people to insist that the negative actions of humans are examples of their non-intelligence. Because humans engage in wars, ‘destroy their own environment’, and prefer to do things that are looked down upon by Buddhist principals such as owning possessions, aggrandizing, and controlling other aspects of their environment, many insist that dolphins are ‘more intelligent’ because they perceive abstaining from these actions as enlightened or intellectual.
Destructive or amoral tendencies do not equate to 'stupidity'
A human’s ability to perceive that they are doing 'bad' things and form their own opinions on it is yet a great example of how different humans are from dolphins.
The ideologies of humans vary tremendously. Do dolphins examine their existence relative to the planet and their impacts on others? Do they have conflicting opinions? Or am I supposed to believe that they are ‘so intelligent’ that they voluntarily refrain from all this, which may be the defensive thinking of most supporters of dolphin superiority. Many people may also believe that dolphins have a pacifist attitude, but this porpoise disagrees:
Cultural preferences involving death
The animal in the above picture was killed by a bottlenose dolphin. The impalement marks from the dolphin's beak are clearly visible, to indicate the severity of this death. No one really knows why this occurs, but many give natural reasons such as competition for food (ironically, Japanese fisherman involved in dolphin drives give the same excuse), hormonal outbursts, and even 'practice' for their own infanticide (not a very rosy reason). Either way, this is most likely another example of innate behavior related to sexual aggression, and no other dolphins seem to be objecting to it.
There have been many instances of violence inflicted on other species with comparable intelligence to themselves by dolphins.
Orca whales eat other dolphins, but apparently they do not have to, as it is said this is a cultural preference. Other groups of killer whales named 'residents' subsist exclusively on fish. If this is so, this means that orca whales have a choice on whether or not to torture and kill members of their own kind.
It would be a lot like humans exclusively choosing to consume chimpanzees and gorillas, stealing their children and devouring them in front of their distraught mothers. Yet, it is even worse because orca whales (who are also dolphins) are more similar to their prey than humans are to chimps. Orca whales, aside from this dietary preference, have been documented on numerous occasions eating small amounts of or not even eating any of their dispatched prey.
Orca whales could probably perceive and understand the suffering they are inflicting, but it is apparently meaningless to them. Many humans on the other hand, myself included, care about the suffering their prey goes through. Indeed, we have big moral debates on our own consumption ethics, and it has little to do with our own survival.
Of course, many people can provide natural theories for why all of this occurs, essentially attributing it to mindless animal behavior, and then contradicting their assertions that these animals have moralistic consciousnesses like human societies.
Dolphins become 'basic animals' when the atrocities they commit are brought up, yet I, being a human, am supposed to subject myself to the morality of others. I shouldn't keep pets, eat meat, or enjoy having money. I am bound to fail at any comparison with any animal.
Dolphin intelligence skepticism is rare
Typically, the first instinct of a reader who disagrees with my view of these animals is to defend them, and come up with some reason why a dolphin would abuse an animal that’s practically a member of their own species for non-food purposes. Why are dolphins defended so staunchly?
Why are people so desperate to hope that they possess a mystical form of intelligence and benevolence while humans never get the same appreciation?
This is also ignoring the fact that not all humans fit the stereotypes that violate the ‘make love not war’ mentality that people seem to believe is the height of an intelligent existence. The view that humans are unintelligent because members of their species commit offenses that do not fit the idealized values of other humans is preposterous, and a great example of the misguided thinking that causes the belief of human-esque intelligence being possessed by cetaceans (or maybe not so human).
Many people probably feel a level of guilt over their control of Earth’s resources and commit to the belief that they are a force of evil compared to ‘innocent’ animals. Innocence is a concept understood by humans, and projected on to animals and young children that do not possess higher awareness and ‘do not know better’. Therefore, it’s time for those who wish to consider dolphins 'persons' and fight for their ‘rights’ to make a decision. Are they ‘innocent’ or not? Can they perceive the suffering of others with a caring attitude without human influence like so many humans are able to?