A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Want to Sell a Book about Dolphins? Call Them Dumb!

dolphins-090913(Sept. 12, 2013: Note: Justin Gregg has responded to this post, saying that he was seriously misquoted in the London Sunday Times article we reference below. So I’ve added his response at the end of the post.)

How do you sell yet another book about dolphins? By now, all the hype about dolphins being angels and aliens who can heal you of almost any ailment is old hat. So you’re going to need a new idea.

And, here it is: They’re not angels … they’re not even intelligent … in fact, they’re just plain dumb.

That, at least, is the proposition behind Justin Gregg’s new book Are Dolphins Really Smart?


In pre-publication interviews, Dr. Gregg proclaims that “in terms of intelligence they are nowhere near as special as they have been portrayed … Dolphins do have a unique signature whistle, and it’s possible that they could use this in order to communicate. But they do not seem to have alarm calls or food calls – so in that respect they are less sophisticated than chickens.”

After interviewing Dr. Gregg, The Times of London writes:

Dolphins, for 50 years promoted as the most intelligent creatures after humans, may actually be no brighter than other animals, with an added propensity for thuggish attacks on fellow cetaceans.

… Last year scientists made a bid to have dolphins reclassified as ‘non-human persons’, and said killing them should be treated as murder. But zoologist Justin Gregg … believes we have allowed sentimental ideas about the species to cloud our judgment.

Except that there’s nothing “sentimental” in what science has been discovering about dolphins. It has been clearly demonstrated that, like chimpanzees and elephants, these animals are cognitively advanced, self-aware, autonomous beings. That means there is a clear legal and scientific case to be made for them having a right not be held in captivity in concrete pools where they are forced to perform tricks for entertainment and profit. If aggression is the mark of a lack of intelligence, we humans have to be ranked the dumbest animals of all.

Dr. Gregg is not dumb; he’s one of the editors of the journal Aquatic Mammals. He correctly points out that dolphins, far from being “peaceful” and “angelic”, can be aggressive and even violent toward each other in their social interactions. But that’s hardly news – other researchers have been observing this for years.  And it certainly doesn’t make dolphins “dumb”.

Or, if it does, then we humans are in serious trouble ourselves. Dolphins may bully each other, but they don’t kill each other by the millions and destroy the planet. If aggression is the mark of a lack of intelligence, we humans have to be ranked the dumbest animals of all.

Dr. Gregg is also correct in saying that humans have often had an absurdly idealized notion of dolphins. But that’s hardly news, either.

Where he goes off the rails is in going to the opposite, and equally irresponsible, extreme of the angels/aliens crowd, and selling a whole lot of hype himself.

And the newspapers and reviewers who quote Dr. Gregg without bothering to consult other scientists or to consider the wealth of scientific studies on dolphins are plain irresponsible, too.

Neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino, a leading expert on the brains of dolphins, writes:

One should always be wary of exaggerated claims such as the statement that dolphins are dumb.  This conclusion is just as unsupported and erroneous as claims about dolphins having special healing and spiritual powers. These kinds of headlines sell books but are not accurate and no scientist of any merit would make such a claim.

Also, readers should not confuse aggressiveness with intelligence.  Humans are very intelligent and also very aggressive.  Dolphins are very intelligent and they can also be aggressive.  The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

Finally, the fact that other species share some aspects of intelligence with dolphins has no bearing whatsoever on the validity of claims that dolphins are intelligent.  These are orthogonal issues. That would be like making the logical error of concluding humans are dumb because other species share some of our cognitive characteristics. Dolphins are not gods nor are they dumb – and both claims are irrational.

It’s precisely because there is such a wealth of scientific evidence regarding the cognitive abilities of dolphins, chimpanzees and elephants that the Nonhuman Rights Project is selecting its first plaintiffs from among these species. It is not “sentimental” to argue for their release from intolerable captivity, it is the only logical and rational course of action.

Note: After I posted the above, I had an e-mail from Justin Gregg saying that he never said that dolphins are “dumb” and that he was seriously misquoted by the Sunday Times. I suggested to him that the correct course of action is to address this to the newspaper as a Letter to the Editor. He has done this and has been told the letter will appear in this Sunday’s paper. The text of his letter is as follows:

In a humorous editorial (“Flipper fails on porpoise,” last week) it was suggested that I stated that dolphins are dimmer than chickens and capable of gang rape. I did not. Dolphins do not engage in rape – a myth based on a misunderstanding of dolphin socio-sexual behavior – and are not dimmer than chickens.

In my book on dolphin cognition, which was the focus of the article “Jack the Flipper kills smart dolphin myth” (News, last week) I conclude that there is good reason to believe that dolphins are intelligent. But I also point out that many other species that we often think of as unintelligent sometimes produce unexpectedly intelligent behavior as well. Animal cognition is a lot murkier and harder to interpret than most people realize, especially when trying to make cross-species comparisons.

Justin Gregg, Research Associate, Dolphin Communication Project