Dolphins Intelligent, Self-Aware: “Well Above Chimps and Apes” -Researchers Cite Ethics Issues
Also – Japanese Dolphin Slaughter Comes to Light (below)
By Leo Kretzner, San Diego, CA. February 22, 2010
Just what do we think makes us so smart??
Well, lots of things. We have big, convoluted brains with many specialized nerve cell types; we have language and can understand symbols; we spend many years growing up within large, extended family and social networks; and, perhaps most importantly, we have a sense of self, and a sense of the ‘selves’ of others, including their emotions.
We are not alone in any of these attributes. Chimpanzees and apes have many obvious parallels, albeit each more modest than any similar skill in humans.
But it is actually dolphins and whales that come closest to us in most if not all of our “higher” attributes, easily surpassing the expression of them seen in the great apes.
This was the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from a trio of talks by a neurobiologist, a marine scientist and a philosopher, presented this past weekend at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego, CA, February 18 – 22, 2010.
More Than Just Size
When it comes to brains, it’s clearly not just size that matters, since animals can of such varied size. What matters – and sets humans apart – is brain size in relation to overall body size.
“We’re very proud of our frontal lobes,” said Dr. Lori Marino, of Emory University, in Atlanta, GA, showing how humans have a brain seven times larger than would be predicted for our body size.
By the same standard, great apes’ brains are two to three times larger than expected, while those of dolphins and whales exceed expectation by four to five-fold – more like us than our genetically much closer fellow primates.
She also showed pictures of ‘spindle cell’ nerves in dolphins, otherwise known only in higher primates, including us, and elephants. These cells are among those connecting emotional and intellectual parts of our brains. They play a role in many of our more complex behaviors, and consistent with this they are particularly susceptible to degradation in Alzheimer’s disease patients.
Dr. Diana Reiss, from Hunter College, City University of New York, presented videos and other data of dolphins showing self-recognition in mirrors. She noted that babies are able to learn this behavior toward the end of their first year, but our dogs and cats cannot grasp this idea. She further showed dolphins using symbols on a large board to get specific objects they wanted, and engaging in problem solving and in play.
In one remarkable sequence, a dolphin blew two air bubbles in a row in such as way that they merged – just as the dolphin swam through their combined volume, breaking it into a thousand smaller bubbles. Improvised play with necessary forethought!
“These are remarkably bright animals who form alliances and even super-alliances with other groups of individuals [of their own species],” said Dr. Reiss.
Biology Meets Ethics
Then came the views of a philosopher and ethicist. Professor Thomas White of Loyola Marymount University, Redondo Beach, CA, made a compelling case for dolphins and whales being highly evolved, non-human persons.
He noted the scientific documentation of the intelligent, emotional and empathetic behavior in the dolphin family, and reviewed millennia of philosophical thought on the nature of personhood.
“Ultimately,” he said, “it comes down to us treating a person as a ‘who’, not a ‘what’.”
He noted that most of us readily attribute this state to our dogs and cats, and pointed out the implicit question – what, then, for these equally emotional yet far more intelligent animals?
There was a distinct lack of any animal-rightist stridency or blanket extremism among these experts. They disagreed as to whether holding dolphins and their relatives in any type of captivity was morally defensible. Dr. Marino argued that even the best captive conditions offer an environment one ten-thousandth of a percent (that’s 0.000001) the size of their native habitat.
Dr. Riess and other discussants – in particular, Dr. Jerry Schubel of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA – countered that limited and extremely sensitive keeping of the animals not only allows us to learn more about their biology but also to engage people of all ages in caring about their survival.
Japanese Dolphin Slaughter Comes to Light
By contrast, the researchers and others present were entirely united in condemnation of an annual dolphin hunt and subsequent slaughter that occurs in two small fishing villages in Japan.
This practice – apparently little known even to millions of Japanese – is also the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary film, “The Cove.” After a warning about content, harrowing scenes shown from the movie depicted these highly sentient animals being herded by nets onto shore, then being eviscerated alive. People in the audience gasped, many averting their eyes.
“I know this is horrible to watch,” said Dr. Riess, “but I submit this to you as data.”
All the speakers have participated in repeated attempts to engage the Japanese government in discussion of the issues their research raises, but have felt strongly rebuffed by replies that this is a matter of Japanese tradition and diet. They acknowledge such views are worthy of consideration and some respect.
“Yet we have tried and failed to find any real wide-spread acceptance of this practice in Japan,” said Dr. Reiss. “At least as much as the government there will let us or our Japanese colleagues even attempt to determine this,” she added.
“And the dolphins’ meat is highly contaminated with mercury!” added Dr. Marino. “No one should be eating very much of it for their own health.”
The Japanese fishermen say they do it because the dolphins deprive them of getting enough fish, a claim the researchers said has been debunked by actual study. Indeed, dolphins can die in high numbers when caught in fishing nets themselves – they, like us, are air breathers.
Many zoos around the world buy dolphins from this drive – those spared out of the more than two thousand killed every year in the two villages. The researchers noted that no zoo in the United State has taken any dolphins from the wild in over twenty years, but most Asian zoos are guilty of taking dolphins from this drive, as well as some in Turkey, Dubai, and Iran.
Dr. Reiss concluded, “At this point, we are asking others to help us raise awareness about all of this. And we are simply trying to ask the Japanese people themselves, ‘Is this an annual ritual you and your families want to condone and support?’”
Leo Kretzner is a molecular biologist and science writer living in Claremont, CA.