Der Spiegel article clarifications

by • May 27, 2013 • Book NewsComments Off4016

An article appeared in Der Spiegel about Are Dolphins Really Smart? this afternoon. Here’s just a quick clarification of some points made in the article:

1) The setup leads to the question “Really? Are chickens as smart as dolphins?” Of course the answer is no (which I’ve stated many times). The mention of chickens in the book is a device to help the reader understand the unscientific nature of comparing “intelligence” between species, and to note that many animals that we often think of as unintelligent do in fact display intelligence. This is an attempt to highlight the difficulties in translating the science of ‘comparative cognition’ into the non-science of ‘comparative intelligence.’

2) The article discussed Paul Manger’s ideas alongside what I state in the book, perhaps leaving the impression that I agree with all of them. This is not the case. Some of Manger’s points are valid, but I also dedicate many sections of the book to explaining some of the the problems that scientists have noted with his arguments. As for his comments in the Der Spiegel article, I would disagree with many of them, including ”The essential features of complex neural processing of information, as observed in other mammals, are missing or poorly developed”‘ and “”Exactly what the dolphins do with the sponges remains unknown,” he says, noting that the evidence they use them as tools is “flimsy,”‘ and ‘”We put them on a pedestal for no reason.”‘

3) Contrary to Manger’s points in this article, I argue that dolphins’ use of symbols in the lab is exceptional and evidence of complex cognition. I also disagree with his assessment of the mirror self recognition test as it pertains to being able to see the mark.

4) I also did not state what was written in the penultimate paragraph: “We have to stop describing them as ‘special’,” says Gregg.” The thrust of my book is not about suggesting that dolphins are “average” or “less special” and I most certainly did not suggest that in the email interview. In fact, I even provided some reasons explaining why we could consider them special! To see what I actually wrote in my email interview with Der Speigel, here is a copy of the entire interview (handy, eh? This is why I prefer email interviews):

Why do you think is it that humans consider dolphins particularly intelligent?
First and foremost, there is a large body of scientific evidence from the past 50 years that strongly suggests that dolphins are intelligent animals. But long before we knew much about dolphins from a scientific perspective, Western culture – starting in the early 1960s – was inundated with popular ideas about dolphins possibly being just as intelligent – or more intelligent – than human. The combination of these two factors has resulted in our current ideas about dolphin intelligence.

Can a special intellectual status be assigned to cetaceans?
This all depends on what one considers ‘special.’ Dolphins in particular display a number of complex behaviors stemming from complex cognition that one rarely sees in the animal kingdom – usually things seen in primates or corvids. This includes things like symbol comprehension and mirror self-recognition. So as far as these specific traits go, these animals are ‘special’ from a cognition perspective. But our criteria for determining what is ‘special’ has, historically, been quite fickle. We once considered tool use a ‘special’ trait, but it is now known that it is rather widespread in the animal kingdom, and therefore less ‘special’ than it once was. The idea of what is ‘special’ is not something that can be answered by science – it is a philosophical or moral question, and depends on the ethical perspectives of the person asking the question.

What is wrong with the notion that they are smart/special?
There is nothing at all wrong with thinking dolphins are smart and/or special. But when we approach this question purely from a scientific perspective and ask how unique the behaviors are that dolphins display, it turns out that many species are displaying the kind of ‘smart’ behaviors that we used to only attribute to dolphins and primates. So it is a helpful exercise to look at the science of animal cognition to determine how widespread traits are that we commonly – and sometimes wrongly – consider unique to traditionally ‘smart’ species.

Which would be mammals you would be willing to compare to dolphins with in terms of intelligence? Or is such a comparison not helpful at all?
I believe quite firmly that it is impossible to make these kinds of comparisons. We have no scientifically valid definition of ‘intelligence’ which makes it impossible to reliably compare the intelligence of different species. We can only say what cognitive traits certain species might share. For example, social learning is observed in dolphins, primates, and fish. Echolocation is observed in dolphins and bats. But what does this mean in terms of the overall intelligence of these species? Nothing really. Often when we ask how ‘intelligent’ an animal is, we are simply asking how ‘human-like’ that animal’s behavior is, which is not a particularly scientific thing to do.

Do you agree with e.g. the Non-Human Rights Project that dolphins should be granted the legal status of personhood / the same ethical and moral consideration as human beings?
I discuss these ethical movements in the book, but am very careful not to take a position on these issues. The book is an unbiased, objective assessment of what science knows about dolphin cognition. I sincerely hope that the information in the book can be used be any individual from any ideological background as an unbiased source of scientific information. My own opinion on these matters is entirely irrelevant since I am simply providing an objective overview of the science.

Why is it important to deconstruct the dolphin myth? Is it harmful to put these animals on a pedestal? If yes, why?
I think for the most part there is no harm in thinking that dolphins are supernaturally intelligent, or even more intelligent than human beings. I do however think that the general public should get more excited about the field of animal cognition, and want to delve deeper into the question of ‘just how smart are dolphins’ and look to the sciences for more information. I would love to see that people don’t simply accept everything they see online about dolphin super-intelligence, but instead feel the urge to get to the bottom of some of the stranger claims (like the idea that dolphins can teleport people to Mars).  There’s simply a lot more to the science behind dolphin intelligence than most people believe, and it is a lot of fun to learn how scientists go about probing the nature of dolphin minds. I am keen to share my passion for critical thinking with the public on one subject that has always fascinated me: the idea of dolphin intelligence.

How important was your work on dolphin communication in leading you to the conclusions laid out in the book? What did you learn about the animals through your studies that is not consistent with the notion that they are “special”?
When I first started my research, I was taken with the idea that dolphins might have a sophisticated language that functioned a lot like human language. After spending the better part of a decade researching and thinking about this topic, I realized that a lot of my initial ideas about dolphin language clashed with what science actually knows about the nature of dolphin communication. I had always considered dolphin communication to be uniquely sophisticated, but after learning about how other animals communicate – especially the sophisticated alarm call systems of prairie dogs or the fascinating bee waggle dance – I have come to realize that a lot of other species are displaying complex communicative behavior, and that I should maybe not have been so quick to put dolphins on a pedestal.

At times, the discussion around cetacean cognition seems to be quite emotional (e.g. Manger vs. Marino). Why is this the case in your opinion?
People are very passionate about dolphins in general. They are a large, intelligent animal that is often very curious and friendly toward humans. It is hard not to form emotional attachments to dolphins – especially if you’ve ever encountered them swimming alongside you in the open ocean. So I think many people simply don’t enjoy hearing about the possibility that dolphins might sometimes be aggressive animals, or that science is not in fact all that sure about how complex their minds are. The exchanges between Manger and Marino, however, focus primarily on questions of the best interpretation of the scientific data. I don’t think it will surprise anyone that scientists can be just as passionate as anyone else when it comes to arguing their point of view. I dare say you can find equally as passionate exchanges in the ant or primate cognition literature.

So I leave it to the reader to make the determination as to whether or not what I wrote in the interview comes across in the Der Speigel article.

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