Are Dolphins Really Smart? The mammal behind the myth

The Mammal Behind the Myth

by Justin Gregg
published by Oxford University Press

Read the Author Q&A at this link.

Are Dolphins Really Smart? provides a highly critical look at the popular myths about dolphin intelligence and behaviour. Justin Gregg presents the latest scientific findings, highlighting the clash between scientific fact and pseudoscience. Incorporating the latest research, this is important reading for all interested in animal behaviour.

How intelligent are dolphins? Is their communication system really as complex as human language? And are they as friendly and peaceful as they are made out to be? The Western world has had an enduring love affair with dolphins since the early 1960s, with fanciful claims of their ‘healing powers’ and ‘super intelligence’. Myths and pseudoscience abound on the subject. Justin Gregg weighs up the claims made about dolphin intelligence and separates scientific fact from fiction. He puts our knowledge about dolphin behaviour and intelligence into perspective, with comparisons to scientific studies of other animals, especially the crow family and great apes. He gives fascinating accounts of the challenges of testing what an animal with flippers and no facial expressions might be thinking. Presenting the results of the latest research in animal behaviour, Gregg challenges many of the widespread beliefs about dolphins, while also inspiring the reader with the remarkable abilities common to many of the less glamorized animals around us – such as chickens.

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Praise and reviews

This book is a masterpiece of popular science writing and a contender for my book of the year. Although Justin Gregg challenges some preconceptions in Are Dolphins Really Smart?, it’s a testament to his skill as a writer that none of the cetaceans’ lustre  wears off. -Mark Greener, Fortean Times

Are Dolphins Really Smart? will be my go-to book of recommendation when someone asks me this question, and members of the public often do. The logic and writing are superb, the flow is easy enough to be read by bright inquisitive teenagers, and yet detailed and insightful enough for seasoned behavioral researchers. Open-minded readers will come away with a heightened understanding of dolphin behaviors and capabilities, and a renewed respect for marvelous animals among all of the marvelous biota around us. -Bernd Würsig, Marine Biology, Texas A&M University

Are Dolphins Really Smart? makes an important contribution to discussions of animal intelligence. Justin Gregg examines the “myth of the intelligent dolphin” and gives us a rational, scientific view of what dolphins are really capable of doing. He writes in a very readable and convincing way about the various claims that have been made and leaves us with a realistic, if not entirely flattering, picture of dolphin life and behaviour. -Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behaviour, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

The book is an excellent, entertaining read for anyone interested in animal cognition and welfare and should be required reading for all journalists writing on the topic. -Eric M. Patterson, Department of Biology, Georgetown University

At last a book that puts dolphins in their rightful place in the cognitive hierarchy – on a par with dogs: refreshingly honest.  -Tim Birkhead, professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Sheffield and author of Bird Sense.

Gregg, described as a “spokesperson for mainstream science,” and co-editor of Aquatic Mammals, analyzes the state of scientific research on dolphin cognition—alongside other notable species such as apes, corvids, and bees—to address the mystique arising from John Lilly’s writings about dolphin intelligence, which inspired some organizations to push for legal cetacean personhood. Gregg argues that defining an animal’s intelligence as a single metric is an unscientific attempt to fit behaviors into a human-like model. He prefers operational definitions of specific cognitive tasks, which allow us to acknowledge limited skills, such as facial recognition abilities among sheep. Gregg dismisses brain size or the possession of specific biological structures as indicators of complex cognition, and highlights difficulties in test design for understanding a theory of mind, including the mirror self-recognition test. Defining language in terms of parameters like limitless expression and arbitrariness of symbols, Gregg shows that, like chimpanzees, dolphins have communication systems with some sophisticated characteristics, but which do not approach the complexity of human language. Finally, Gregg addresses the myth of dolphins as gentle creatures, highlighting aggressive behaviors and infanticide in the wild, leaving readers with a sense of dolphins as fascinating creatures, but not ones to put on a pedestal for wisdom, ethics, or nearness to the human experience. Review from Publishers Weekly

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 296
ISBN-13: 978-0-19-966045-2
ISBN-10: 019966045X
Publication date: September 2013

About the Book


Popular science readership, including those who are interested in animal mind and behaviour and the science of dolphins.

Table of Contents
1: The Second Most Intelligent Creature on Earth
2: What Big Brains You Have
3: Cogito Ergo Delphinus Sum
4: The Proof of the Pudding is in the Behaving
5: Dolphinese
6: A Most Gentle Mammal
7: The Deconstructed Dolphin