Dolphins and Us
Part One: The Smartest of Us All?
“So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!”
Amazing Abilities of Dolphins
Dolphins or Humans: Who’s Smarter?
Dolphin Society and Culture
They’re Super-Brainy, Too
More Fascinating Stuff
The Great Researcher
A Society that Works
Are Dolphins “Persons”
Life and Culture
How Smart is a Dolphin?
Experimenting on Dolphins
My Visit to the Dolphins
Other Links & Videos
Mirror Self-Recognition Test
The Herman Investigation
The Minds of Whales
There’s good reason to think that dolphins are smarter than we are. After all, they’ve had a long time to figure out how to live well and prosper. Much longer than us. The modern bottlenose dolphin has been around for about 15 million years. Modern humans have barely been around for 100,000 years, and human civilization is not much more than 5,000 years old. In those terms, we’re an infant species — barely even adolescent. We’re like little kids with big grown-up toys that we don’t know how to use for our own good. So while our technical abilities have evolved very rapidly, our ability to live well and prosper lags way behind.
Real intelligence isn’t measured by one of those pop quizzes where you have to figure out “which of these shapes doesn’t belong” or “what’s the next number in this series.” Real intelligence is measured by how well you can survive and make a better life for your children. In those terms, the jury is out on whether we humans can actually make it into adulthood. Frankly, we’re not that bright. We’re not good at getting on with each other. We settle even simple disputes by killing millions of each other, and we’re destroying the planet that’s our home, with huge consequences to ourselves. That’s really dumb.
Dolphins, by contrast, have created societies that work. Tom White, a business ethics professor who became fascinated with dolphins, has studied the scientific literature, and puts it all into an easy-to-read book, In Defense of Dolphins. (We interview him here.) Tom explains, for example, that to get an idea of how smart dolphins are, you have to consider the kinds of skills they’ve developed to meet the needs of living in the ocean. It’s very different from living on land. Just for starters, everything looks pretty much the same. You can’t build a house. If you’re a mammal, as dolphins are, you have to keep coming up for air (which means you have to figure out when it’s time to surface and take another breath.
So if you’re a dolphin, being good at chemistry or the stock market isn’t the kind of intelligence that’s much use to you. You’ve got much more important things to think about. And you can’t go off and think about them by yourself. It’s difficult to catch food on your own. And if you’re on your own, you’re more likely to become someone else’s dinner. So, life for a dolphin is all about the group, the society, the relationships, and how you can best operate as a team. Social skills are crucial. Killing off your own kind is not a good idea, so you have to figure out how to settle disputes within your group and between groups.
Dolphins aren’t angelic pacifists, as some “new-age” type people like to believe. They have aggressive instincts, just as we do. So they’ve had to figure out how to manage them — in ways that we haven’t remotely done. And that suggests a level of intelligence that, so far, eludes our own species.