Author Q&A

Are Dolphins Really Smart?Justin Gregg, PhD, is a psychologist and Research Associate with the Dolphin Communication Project. His book, Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth, was published on September 26th by Oxford University Press.

What is Are Dolphins Really Smart? about?
My book provides a scholarly overview of the past five decades’ worth of scientific research into dolphin cognition and behavior in order to determine if the evidence supports the claims that dolphins 1) have an unusually large and sophisticated brain that is driving their intelligence, 2) have minds that are unusually complex when it comes to self-awareness, consciousness, and emotions, 3) display unusually sophisticated behavior in the wild and in experimental situations, 4) have a communication system that is as sophisticated as human language, and 5) have unusually complex social lives, and live in peaceful harmony with each other and their environment. I discuss many studies and lines of research, and point out where the various scientists and scientific perspectives clash when it comes to interpreting results. I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these studies, and generally try to summarize what it is that we know, and don’t know, about dolphin cognition. I also try to put the results into perspective by comparing what we know about the cognition of other species. In the end, I find that while there is good reason to stake the claim that dolphins are intelligent animals, the science of animal cognition is a lot murkier and harder to interpret than most people realize.

Why did you write the book?
I work for a dolphin research organization that does a lot of public science education, and students and the general public always ask us if it’s true that dolphins are smart/intelligent.  As a scientist, I have the urge to say that this isn’t a particularly scientific question since science can’t really define intelligence, but I think it’s unfair to evade answering the question like this. So I have written this book as an answer to this common question. My goal is to look at all of the things people typically associate with dolphin intelligence (large brains, language, complex societies) and figure out what the scientific evidence says about these subjects.  Because so many people believe that dolphins are the ‘second most intelligent animal,’ and because many people argue that we have a responsibility to treat dolphins better because of their intelligence, I thought the public would appreciate a book where the science of dolphin cognition is presented and critically analyzed in order to better describe the nature of their intelligence. I really wanted the book to be a repository of impartial scientific information on the nature of dolphin cognition, so that people can figure out for themselves whether we should be considering dolphins to be extraordinarily intelligent or not.

Are dolphins intelligent?
There are many ways to define “intelligence,” and in the book I adopt the following definition: Intelligence is a measure of how closely a thing’s behavior resembles the behavior of an adult human. By this definition, it does indeed seem that dolphins are intelligent. For an animal that looks nothing like a human and evolved in an aquatic environment, dolphins certainly (and maybe unexpectedly) display a lot of behaviors (e.g., complex social systems, symbol use skills, mirror self-recognition) that we usually associate with primates (mostly the great apes). Perhaps also corvids. The current body of literature on animal cognition, however, is producing findings that suggest that many other species also display these types of intelligent behaviors. It seems likely that in the coming decades we will continue to find that many species (like cephalopods and fish) display at least some of the kinds of intelligence that we currently associate with dolphins, primates, and corvids.

Is this a controversial book where you are portraying dolphin intelligence in a negative light?
The book is an objective, scientific, and critical look at the field of dolphin cognition as it pertains to the question of intelligence. Ultimately I conclude that dolphins are intelligent animals. But because the book is taking a ‘critical’ look at the science, many people understand this to mean that the book is a negative portrayal of dolphin smarts. This is not the case. I don’t think anyone who reads the book will be left thinking that dolphins are dumb – they’ll probably have a new found respect for the intelligence of dolphins and other animals, as well as an appreciation of just how hard it is to study animal minds.

Does your book argue that dolphins are not intelligent?
No. When you look at the behavioral repertoire of dolphins and the results from cognition experiments involving dolphins, it’s clear that dolphins perform well on a number of metrics that people commonly associate for ‘intelligence,’ especially in the realms of symbol use and social cognition. This puts them on par with the great apes and corvids on many of these tests. But I also point out in the book that many species that we often consider ‘dumb’ sometimes also display behaviors and perform well on tests we associate with intelligence. Chickens, for example, have a repertoire of alarm and food calls that are sometimes considered referential signals, and have shown signs of empathy in an experimental setting. One of the main points of my book is that our common ideas of what intelligence is are often not particularly scientific, which means that making comparisons between species and trying to figure out which species are ‘smarter’ constitutes bad science.

What other animals would dolphins be on par with in terms of brain power? Are they smarter than dogs? Smarter than horses?
It is truly impossible to make a statement along these lines. Depending on which cognitive traits one decides to include under the heading of ‘smart,’ you wind up with any manner of ranking as far as intelligence goes. When it comes to the ability to echolocate, dolphins are obviously ‘smarter’ than horses. When it comes to the ability to run very fast and jump over fences, horses are obviously ‘smarter’ than dolphins. So it’s impossible to say where dolphins belong from a scientific perspective since ranking animals’ cognitive abilities under the heading of ‘intelligence’ in this way constitutes bad science.

Is it true that dolphins are second only to humans in terms of intelligence?
I begin the book by noting that comparing animal intelligence to human intelligence is not a very useful thing to do as far as science goes. We don’t really have a good definition as to what intelligence is, which makes these comparisons impossible. And there is no reason to consider human cognition as the model against which all other animals should be compared. But when we do look at dolphin cognition and compare it to human cognition, we find that dolphins do a number of things that are unexpectedly primate-like – especially for an animal that evolved in the ocean. Of course human intelligence involves a number of things that we don’t find in dolphins (e.g., the ability to build rocket ships) – but keep in mind that dolphin intelligence involves a number of things we don’t see in humans (e.g., echolocation).

Is this book about debunking myths about dolphin intelligence?
I am interested in providing the public with an objective, scientific overview of the field of dolphin cognition. I think there are a number of things that we commonly encounter in popular culture about dolphin intelligence that are not always derived from the scientific literature, and it is my hope that my book will be a useful resource for those looking for impartial information about dolphin cognition.

Are you arguing that dolphins do not deserve special treatment?
No, I am not suggesting this. There are a number of approaches to the issue of animal rights and welfare, and one of them is trying to determine if evidence for sophisticated cognitive abilities should result in increased legal protection or moral consideration. There is plenty of debate taking place between the various advocacy groups as to whether or not this is the best approach. But I do not take any position in the book on this topic other than to point out the various approaches that others are taking. My book does not argue from any particular advocacy position, but instead provides an objective and scholarly overview of the field of dolphin cognition.

What is the nature of your work/research? 
My research group is focused on the study of dolphin communication. In recent years, we’ve been looking at how dolphins use pectoral fin rubbing as a communicative signal. I am interested in the study of dolphin social cognition.

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