Are Dolphins Really Smart?



By SisiBroad | September 28, 2013 8:38 am

For more than 50 years, the dolphin has been viewed as an especially intelligent creature, grouped together with human beings and great apes. But now a dispute on the subject has erupted among scientists, and the smart aleck of the seas may end up being just an average mammal.

Lilly gushed, dolphins were "more intelligent than any man or woman."

Lilly gushed, dolphins were “more intelligent than any man or woman.”

“We put them on a pedestal for no reason and projected a lot of our desires and wishes on them,” says neuroethologist Paul Manger of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. According to the professor, the claims that dolphins have a particularly complex brain, use a sophisticated language, are self-aware and can use tools are nonsense.

Physician and neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly

Physician and neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly

When goldfish are placed in a bowl, he explains, they at least try to escape by boldly jumping out, whereas dolphins that have been captured in nets won’t even think of jumping to freedom. Most dolphin researchers are offended by such remarks. “You can use similar arguments to prove that people aren’t intelligent,” says Karsten Brensing, a marine biologist with the organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).

Notion of the intelligence of dolphin based on effort physician and neuroscientist John Lilly who played the crucial role in the elevation of dolphins from the status of fish to a human-like faculty of speech and attempted to establish contact with the marine mammals. His desire to communicate was so great he administered LSD to himself and the dolphins in the hopes of stimulating conversation.  Lilly gushed, dolphins were “more intelligent than any man or woman.” He even attributed them philosophy, ethics and an “ancient vocal history.”

Lilly’s legacy shapes our image of dolphins to this day.

A few arguments against dolphins’ outstanding brain.  Researchers were able to teach bottle-nosed dolphins 40 symbols, but African grey parrots and California sea lions can also learn this type of symbol-based language.

It is known that every dolphin can identify itself with its own “signature whistle,” but so does many other animals. It’s probably not the case that dolphins have their own language, which is as complex as human language,” says the expert in animal communication.

“We have to stop describing them as ‘special’,” says Gregg, a zoologist with the US-based Dolphin Communication Project.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the marine mammals’ intellectual abilities are by no means unique in the animal kingdom. “Many other species-from sharks to earwigs to rats-lead equally wondrous and worthy lives,” he writes.

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