What You Should Think About Cetacean Intelligence

November 4, 2007

“. . . man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reason.”

–Douglas Adams

As self-aware beings, “are we alone in the universe?” is a question rich with intrigue. Though it is only one small part of that mystery, “are we alone on Earth?” merits more than the casual glance of traditional assumptions. For ages, our kind has assumed that the march of technology and the proliferation of our numbers were proof our intelligence is unrivaled on this world. Only in recent generations have people come to question if all our cultural and economic activity substantiates such a claim.

The creative and adaptive ways humanity explores, invents, and builds demonstrate great gifts resident in the human mind. No doubt these activities are proof of mental abilities clearly lacking in almost all other known species. Yet it is fair to question if agriculture, urbanization, etc. are inevitable consequences of intelligence. Might non-human thinkers, developing intelligence while pursuing much different survival strategies, manifest brilliance in ways not at all parallel to the rise of human civilization?

If we do not rely on the assumption that all roads of intelligence lead down the technological path we have followed, then we must look elsewhere to identify and quantify the phenomenon. There is no shortage of animal behavior that displays problem-solving ability. On the other hand, measuring this ability can be problematic. Creatures that almost certainly lack self-awareness may nonetheless be extremely sensitive to cues, even involuntary cues, provided by familiar handlers hoping for dramatic results. At least when it comes to gauging intelligence, a rapport between trainer and subject can masquerade as actual problem solving ability.

Still there are other avenues to consider. As much philosophy as psychology, one sensible theory of self-awareness holds that there is a “mirror stage” in which developing intelligence manifests as the ability to identify a reflection as the sight of oneself. This distinction is crucial in so many ways. Though many animals seem to exhibit emotional states, it is typically a projection of human self-awareness that causes us to feel empathy with these animals. Organisms incapable of, or not yet having reached, this mirror stage of development do not understand themselves to be distinct from nature. Primal imperatives and emotions, as complex as they may appear, are ultimately driven by pure stimulus-response mechanisms that do not involve a sense of self as a discrete being.

The best available understanding of all this means that even human infants do not initially understand themselves to exist as distinct entities. A wide range of supporting observations seem to reveal that newborns behave as if they thought of themselves as a physical extension of their mother or primary caregiver. Yet even that language is problematic, because the key distinction is that newborns simply do not think of themselves. Given normal development, human infants will acquire this fundamental component of intellect even before developing the coordination to walk upright.

Animal testing in this area is controversial for a number of reasons. Beyond the role of handlers intentionally or inadvertently encouraging successful results, there are other complications. Primate brains dedicate considerable resources to interpreting visual data. Some have argued that dogs could do much better in such a test if only a means existed to reflect scent as a mirror reflects light. While dolphins and whales possess useful eyesight, but it is often not the dominant sense. Predatory whales along with all dolphins rely much more heavily on echolocation. Thus it may be the case that presenting these creatures with visual reflections is not a legitimate test of self-awareness.

Also, there is the matter of interpreting cetacean behavior. A human (and some other primates,) marked with ink then presented with a mirror, can display understanding of the reflection by reaching to touch that mark on their own bodies as perceived in the reflection. Dolphins tested in this manner may twist and turn as if studying the mark, but this behavior is much more ambiguous than the self-touching behavior creatures with arms and fingers may exhibit. Thus one of the primary explanations behind the lack of evident dolphin technology also limits the extent to which dolphin self-awareness can be confirmed.

Then there is the matter of looking for specific variations within the cetacean community. After all, an extraterrestrial studying biological specimens recovered from Earth without any accompanying technology might require some effort to determine that we naked apes have minds so much more advanced than our furry evolutionary kin. It stands to reason that levels of intelligence may also vary from species to species within the cetacean branch of mammalkind.

Among whales, the largest varieties tend to have brains that dwarf those of other living beings. Yet much of that brainpower is required to provide fine muscle control and regulate complex biological processes in the bodies of whales. Comparatively speaking, bottlenose dolphins stand out as the brainiest of cetaceans.

Though the ratio of brain to body mass in bottlenose dolphins still compares unfavorably with humans, the margin of difference is not so vast as to rule out the prospect of dolphin intelligence. Alas, the evolutionary paths that lead to the present are so different that it is difficult to assess the role of dolphins’ prominent cerebral cortex. It is clear that feature’s growth played a vital role in the rise of hominid intelligence. It is also clear that bottlenose dolphins, pound for pound, actually have larger cerebral cortices than humans. It is not at all clear just what ramifications this has on dolphin cognitive ability.

Some analysts would resolve all this mystery by returning to the question, “if dolphins are so smart, why haven’t they developed writing or built cities or taken Jesus as their personal savior?” Focusing on what we know dolphins have not done draws the mind away from what dolphins may have done. Deciphering their complex social structures and intricate methods of communication is an ongoing process. New answers there tend to reveal deeper mysteries.

Various intriguing and provocative works of fiction have presented cetaceans as fantastic poets or well-meaning hedonists or even ancient allies of powerful extraterrestrial beings. Though so much uncertainty remains about the realities of cetacean intelligence, perhaps there is no finer way to close than with one of Carl Sagan’s observations about the subject, “it is of interest to note that while some dolphins have learned English — up to fifty words used in correct context — no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.”