Dolphin Intelligence.
September 4, 2006 9:33 PM   Subscribe

Dolphin intelligence is under fire, but are these arguments over brain size relevant in the face of overwhelming behavioral evidence? Dolphins have been known to display almost all of the qualities which we would consider uniquely human, qualities that we would consider a mark of ‘higher’ intelligence. They are tool users, they are highly creative (perhaps even artistic), they enjoy recreational and social activities, from surfing (either on waves or around the prow of boats) to sex, and they have proven time and time again that they are self-aware. They’ve also formed symbiotic relationships with fisherman, and recent reports suggest that dolphins even have names for each other. But perhaps Douglas Adams said it best in the Hitchhiker’s Guide: “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, whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely the dolphins believed themselves to be more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.”
posted by heylight (44 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
But do they blog?
posted by twsf at 9:52 PM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well, they know how to gang rape, but that isn't as cute as having names for one another.
posted by Falconetti at 9:52 PM on September 4, 2006

The evidence suggests dolphins share the human ability to recognise themselves and other members of the same species as individuals with separate identities

I hope that's just bad reporting because our dogs can also recognize each other and know each other's names and I don't think that's evidence of their near human reasoning powers (although obviously they can't "say" them out loud like dolphins can).
posted by fshgrl at 9:53 PM on September 4, 2006

Despite how he portrayed them in the Uplift series, David Brin has a rather contrarian view to dolphin intelligence. Here.
posted by sourwookie at 9:59 PM on September 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

If dolphins were so smart they'd be swimming in polygonal patterns to get our attention. First a triangle, then a square, then a pentagon,....
posted by scheptech at 10:08 PM on September 4, 2006

Now I don't feel so bad about my all-dolphin tuna.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:09 PM on September 4, 2006

Orbs,Bubbles and Probes. the dolphin photos down the page are worth a look.
posted by hortense at 10:14 PM on September 4, 2006

Every now and then, you read a story about dolphins rescuing a human. So, they can't be that smart.
posted by SPrintF at 10:15 PM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's depressing to me how many acquaintances of mine who hold advanced degrees (in the liberal arts, of course) fall for Dr. Lilly's shit hook, line, and sinker. (No pun intended.)
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:16 PM on September 4, 2006

...and, wow, sourwookie, that's a great piece.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:21 PM on September 4, 2006

Wow. That link was totally off. Such a completely wrong link, I'm not even going to try to post the correct one. I'm sorry, I completely lose at the internets.
posted by papakwanz at 10:42 PM on September 4, 2006

via the brin link:
"I've listened to recorded dolphin "speech," transposed in frequency. The sounds are repetitive, imprecise . . . clearly filled with emotional, not discursive, information."

That said, it's not much different from listening in on most other conversations that take place around us, no? Flipping through the television and talk radio (dear god... talk radio), and water cooler talk, how much is actually "discursive" rational thought, and how much is emotional shrieking?

Just because Brin hears imprecise, emotional babble, doesn't meant that there's a small minority which does present indications of intelligence, even if the majority were just annoyingly stupid.
posted by symbioid at 10:50 PM on September 4, 2006

Oops, I should've read further on before I posted, I didn't really see the point of his article until I read it all.
posted by symbioid at 10:54 PM on September 4, 2006

The sounds are repetitive, imprecise . . . clearly filled with emotional, not discursive, information.

Wow, I didn't know David Brin spoke dolphin!
posted by mek at 10:56 PM on September 4, 2006

They fillet real good too.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:23 PM on September 4, 2006

That David Brin article was kind of stupid, regardless of whether or not I agree with him.
posted by borkingchikapa at 11:30 PM on September 4, 2006

All this gay dolphin talk gives new meaning to
"Fa loves Pa."
posted by turducken at 11:45 PM on September 4, 2006

Obligatory Futurama quote.

Bender: Who wants dolphin?
Leela: Dolphin? But dolphins are intelligent.
Bender: Not this one. He blew all his money on instant lottery tickets.
Fry: OK.
Leela: Oh, OK.
Amy: That's different.
Farnsworth: Good, good.
Leela: Pass the blowhole.
Amy: Can I have a fluke?
Hermes: Hey, quit hogging the bottle-nose.
Farnsworth: Toss me the speech center of the brain!
posted by brownpau at 11:59 PM on September 4, 2006

Thanks brownpau, you just gave me the validation I needed to convert my brother-in-law into soylent green.
posted by maryh at 12:37 AM on September 5, 2006

Brin should run a similar "analysis" on everyday right-wing talk radio...
posted by clevershark at 6:12 AM on September 5, 2006

Or, in the words of Terry Pratchett : "Never trust a species that grins all the time. It's up to something."

(Due to their renowned abilty to save drowning swimmers if there's any chance that biting them in half might be observed and commented upon adversely by other humans.)
posted by Pinback at 6:43 AM on September 5, 2006

Dophins are intelligent because they use sponges as tools? Aren't there dozens of species of animals that use tools, like sticks to poke in the ground, etc.? Heck, birds build rather nice nests for themselves.

And they fact that it's transmitted socially rather than through heredity is also not impressive. We can train dolphins to do things, there's no reason why once trained, they can't train others.

I thought the point of the tool thing was that humans fashioned their own tools - they didn't simply use found objects.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:07 AM on September 5, 2006

Dolphins evolve opposable thumbs. Most of you have probably seen this already but I can't resist. One of my alltime favorites.
posted by jfuller at 7:09 AM on September 5, 2006

Pastabagel: They can't fashion their own tools because they don't have the limbs to do it. Isn’t that obvious? Cultural transmission is a far more intelligent behavior than inherited transmission because it requires social interaction, and I'm pretty sure we can all agree that social behavior is a sign of intelligence (or a contributing factor)

And yes, other animals use tools, but then they lack the other behavioral traits which dolphins possess (recreation, etc)
posted by heylight at 7:17 AM on September 5, 2006

Once I wanted to go swimming with dolphins, then I saw them in person and there's no way I'm swimming with something that big!

On another note, if you're a dolphin fan perhaps you should see this movie or this one.
posted by Vindaloo at 7:26 AM on September 5, 2006

heylight- I get that, but birds lack those same limbs and can still build nests. I'm not disputing that dolphins are more intelligent than animals that can't do anything with any tools, but I'm simply saying that I don't see how they are more intelligent than wolves, monkeys, etc. that also have social groups and play.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:26 AM on September 5, 2006

1) Behavioral experiments that purport to demonstrate dolphin intelligence are often poorly controlled, difficult to replicate, and disputed by other scholars

Ha. Some philosophers would say the same thing about the behavioral experiments that "purport" to demonstrate human intelligence. And they'd be right. And while I haven't read every link in the post, I'm surprised no one has opened the "how do we define intelligence?" can of tuna. It's an essential element of this discussion, and deeply problematizes the entire thing in ways that undercut most of the certainty I'm seeing here.

I thought the point of the tool thing was that humans fashioned their own tools - they didn't simply use found objects.

Er, lots of other animals "fashion" tools, from the primates who stip leaves off sticks to insert them into termite mounds to the crows who make hooks out of metal wire. You're pretty out of date in that attempt to paint humans as uniquely "intelligent," Pastabagel; that criteria went by the wayside long ago.
posted by mediareport at 7:49 AM on September 5, 2006

I'm not trying to paint humans as uniquely intelligent - I was simpy address the fact that I thought the tool charateristic refered to making tools, not just using something as a tool. I've said that birds build nests a few times now, I obviously appreciate that some animals can build tools. Obviously a bird building a nest involves the same skill as beinding a wire (though it is quite impressive that it did this to solve a problem).

I'll take you up on your intelligence definition though. how about an ability to conceptualize social problems that will arise in the future, but that have not yet, and then acting now to address that problem in the future. Though I'm sort of looking for a characteristic that only humans have, and then using that as a definition and working backwards so I guess that isn't appropriate.

But I don think an aspect of intelligence has something to do with treating the abstract future as a distinct, very real problem in the present.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:03 AM on September 5, 2006

how about an ability to conceptualize social problems that will arise in the future, but that have not yet, and then acting now to address that problem in the future.

Wow, us humans would fall way low on your intelligence scale Pastabagel! we only seem to be able to make percieved future problems worse, not better.
posted by twistedonion at 8:10 AM on September 5, 2006

Vindaloo, I swam with dolphins (or maybe porpoises?) at the beach in Lewes, Delaware. I was on the beach early, at Cape Henlopen State Park, with no life guards. The dolphins were just off shore, about 20 of them. I got really excited and started swimming out to them, but it was too cold. They kept getting closer and closer, and I waded out again. Nope, still too cold.

Finally, after about an hour, I couldn't stand it any more, and plunged out. I wasn't really thinking about how far out I was going (hell, boats were passing between me and the shore), that I had contact lenses that could wash out, or that these were really big wild animals. They started checking me out. Three were swimming toward me, then went under, about 20 feet away. They came up about 6 feet away, with a big “whoosh” from their blow holes. I gave a startled “WHOAH,” but kept treading water slowly.

I could smell their breath--that was the coolest thing, this really nasty fishy breath. Truth is, I was scared shitless when one came up so close, and I saw his teeth and his skin and eyes and blow-hole so close--I vividly remember seeing the folds and contours of the blowhole, the movement of the skin as he breathed. I really wanted one to touch me, but I probably would've fainted. I never got the chance, though. I was trying to talk to them in soothing sounds, but I probably wasn't the first swimmer they had ever seen, and they could probably sense my nervousness, too.

After a few close passes, they went on about their business. It took me 10 minutes of fairly hard swimming to get back to shore, against a wicked cross-current. I ended up about a half-mile down the beach from where I started. My ex (well, she wasn't my ex then, but she is now) was a bit mad that I had endangered myself, but fully understanding of why I did it.

I’ve gone out a few more times since then, with more dolphins, but never so close. Once, a friend took a picture. I tried to find spinner dolphins in Hawaii, but only saw a few, way off in the distance. Yeah, they’re big and a bit scary up close, but I’ll do it again, I’m sure.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:23 AM on September 5, 2006

where were the smart dolphins to protect steve irwin when the bull ray was gonna sting 'im???
posted by yonation at 8:25 AM on September 5, 2006

They were on a union-mandated break.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:47 AM on September 5, 2006

And this article from The Onion of course:
posted by BobsterLobster at 8:48 AM on September 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's interesting to see people discuss dolphin vs. human intelligence over this series of 01110100 01110101 01100010 01100101 01110011, the like of which, it is obvious, any dolphin could construct mentally-- if any dolphin were ever so inclined. Otherwise, how could Ensign Darwin make an effective crewmember?

posted by zennie at 8:52 AM on September 5, 2006

How could they make such responsive lovers without intelligence?
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:24 AM on September 5, 2006

yonation: Good story, better than mine -- it was a beach near Charleston, SC where dolphins swim within feet of the shore to eat the shrimp. I'm a pretty big guy, but a wild dolphin is pretty intimidating that close up, even though they were more or less indifferent to me. My initial glee of "yay, swimming with dolphins!" quickly turned to an inferred "you're in *my* world now, bitch!" once I got up close (5 feet or so) and could better see what powerful sea creatures they are.

I tried talking in dolphin-chatter, but my human accent is pretty strong...
posted by LordSludge at 9:58 AM on September 5, 2006

Bah. Humans are hardly what I'd call "intelligent." Just read the comments on a given Metafilter thread, or look at the results of the 2004 presidential election in the United States.
posted by eustacescrubb at 10:29 AM on September 5, 2006

Pastabagel said: how about an ability to conceptualize social problems that will arise in the future, but that have not yet, and then acting now to address that problem in the future

Is that a sign of intelligence or just advanced pattern recognition, though? Either way, I see very little evidence of that in human society.

I don’t pretend to believe in any objective definition of ‘intelligence’. It’s an illusionary term. In the initial post I was merely pointing out that what most humans would commonly define as intelligent and ‘human-like’ traits (recreational and social interaction, tool-use, blah blah blah) are often observed in dolphins. Of course, all these things (besides art/recreation) are merely mechanistic evolutionary behaviors designed to help humans succeed as a species. Does the complexity of these evolutionary behaviors really mean these behaviors are more ‘intelligent’ than the behavior of other animals?

In a purely animal sense I think that ‘intelligence’ has only a mild claim on the human mind, and that intelligence is mostly functional. Beyond that I see artistic endeavor and self-expression (arguably just an intelligent plot for sexual interaction), or better yet ‘meta-cognition’ (thinking about thinking) – a realm purely of the mind as opposed to the brain, and one of the things which adds to the complexity of ‘being conscious’. For all we know, dolphins could experience this. But right now we can barely prove it exists in our fellow man (see: philosophical zombies and solipsism), let alone in another species.
posted by heylight at 10:47 AM on September 5, 2006

Thanks for this excellent post, heylight. Some of the greatest moments of my life have been spent interacting with dolphins whilst surfing.
posted by saladin at 1:54 PM on September 5, 2006

LordSludge, that was me playing Aquaman, not yonation.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:03 PM on September 5, 2006

may have been mentioned before, but they are also capable of using symbols as well.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 4:41 PM on September 5, 2006

Homer: Wait! Stop! We can outsmart those dolphins. Don't forget, we invented computers, leg warmers, bendy straws, peel-and-eat shrimp, the glory hole and the pudding cup. I'm not going to let a bunch of hoop-jumping tuna-munching push me around!
posted by gottabefunky at 5:14 PM on September 5, 2006

(MrMoonPie: Sorry about that; my eye tracked down one "posted by" too far!)
posted by LordSludge at 7:19 AM on September 6, 2006

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