Just so we’re clear: Dolphins are pretty smart

by • May 26, 2013 • Book NewsComments Off7800

My book (Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth) is slated for publication in a few weeks, and I’ve just seen my first review/summary of the book online – posted by Jessa Gamble over at The Last Word On Nothing: ” Dolphins: Largely Unexceptional.” Jessa does a good job of outlining some of the major points in the book. I also bumped across the first sensational/controversial headline based on Jessa’s post: “Dolphins may be just as dumb as fish.” Although the post itself is good, that’s certainly not a headline I would support. To begin with, I agree with Maggie Ryan Sanford that “dumb” and “smart” are not appropriate terms to describe the nature of animal cognition, which is one of the main messages of my book (and why I pose the question in the title).


The main arguments in my book are as follows:

1) It’s true that dolphins do display a pretty impressive mix of skills resulting from complex cognition, so there’s good reason to consider them smart. But there’s much more to the story than most folks realize. When we take a hard look at the details of the science, it turns out that we understand very little about dolphin cognition, which makes it difficult/dangerous to make concrete statements about the nature of their intelligence.

2) It is really difficult to study animal cognition, which makes cross-species comparisons involving “ranking intelligence” mostly meaningless.

3) Intelligence itself is a term that is synonymous with the idea of “how human-like is this animal’s behavior,” which is not a particularly scientific starting point when doing comparative cognition.

4) A lot of the things that dolphins do that we consider unique or extraordinarily intelligent are in fact far more widespread in the animal kingdom than most people realize.

5) There are a lot of unfounded beliefs about dolphins and dolphin behavior that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.

I by no means argue that dolphins are “dumb.” Quite the opposite. Instead, I argue that many animals we currently consider “dumb” turn out to be similar to dolphins when it comes to our ideas of “intelligence” in animals. So a better headline would be as follows: “Fish may be just as smart as dolphins when it comes to certain aspects of cognition like social learning and tool use, but dolphins perform better than fish at tasks involving problem solving or self-awareness, although the study of fish cognition is relatively new which means we’re likely to learn that fish excel at many cognitive tasks on which they’ve not yet been tested.” As you can see, that makes for a terrible headline. Which highlights the nature of the problem: these are complex issues, and before we try to boil them down into catchy and provocative headlines, it’s probably a good idea to explore the topic in detail. Which is what I do in my book. If you do happen to read it, I bet you’ll agree with me that dolphins are in fact pretty smart, but so are a lot of other animals.

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