If only we were as smart as dolphins

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Last weekend, The Sunday Times of London published a fascinating piece on the latest research into dolphin intelligence.

According to recent studies, dolphins have a strong sense of self and, like the great apes, recognize their reflections. Give a dolphin a mirror and there will be a lot of primping going on.

Dolphins are also believed to have the ability to think about and anticipate the future in ways that other creatures driven purely by instinct can't.

Though in many cases, dolphin brains are larger than ours, the only concession they can expect from our species in the smarts department is sole possession of the hotly disputed No. 2 spot in the hierarchy of animal intelligence.

In recent years, dolphins have vaulted over chimpanzees, elephants and even our faithful dogs in the "cognitive capacity" department.

Formerly captive dolphins have been observed teaching their peers in the wild the latest stupid human tricks they picked up during their time jumping through hoops at a local marina.

Thomas White, an ethics professor at Loyola Marymount University, argues that it may be time to think about dolphins as "nonhuman persons."

As someone who has always loved and admired dolphins, I understand where Professor White is coming from. Still, referring to these beautiful creatures as nonhuman persons may be damning them with faint praise if the measure of personhood is -- us.

Superior technology and a willingness to commit animal and human genocide for fun and profit hardly makes us a worthy standard by which to measure our brethren in the animal kingdom.

If they're half as intelligent as we now believe they are, most self-respecting dolphins would bitterly resent the comparison, anyway.

Perhaps a more reliable measure of intelligence is an ability to live in harmony with nature as much as possible. Actually, that would give the advantage to dolphins -- and every other nonhuman creature that swims, creeps or flies over the surface of the Earth.

As a species, we flatter ourselves by imagining a moral and intellectual gulf between us and the rest of the planet's inhabitants that somehow justifies what we do as we go about advancing our interests over theirs.

I once read somewhere that the only thing separating us from animals was our ability to imagine death while striving for transcendence. I think a more prosaic explanation would be our ability to kill without conscience while using the rhetoric of transcendence as a crutch.

Because we have opposable thumbs, big brains and a highly developed sense of God's existence, we assume that gives us the right to manipulate nature so that it reflects our values and interests, even if it means mass extinction.

Adherents of the three great Abrahamic faiths have claimed this as our prerogative since the moment humanity was cast out of Eden. If there's a more perverse or ironic take on a parable about disobeying God and insulting the integrity of creation for extra credit, I'm still waiting to hear it.

If it were possible for the cetacean and human brains to communicate across the gulf that currently separates our species, it would be interesting to get a dolphin's take on some of the heinous things we've done with our sense of transcendence.

What would dolphins think of humans who pray before strapping on explosive vests to kill as many innocent people as possible? Would they be impressed with the piety of someone who slaughters indiscriminately for the promise of sex with 72 virgins in the afterlife?

Could a dolphin understand our compulsion to crush those of different religions, races, ideologies and sexual orientation, without it assuming that it shares this planet with a species more fearsome than any of the giant reptiles that once walked the Earth?

Is it possible to rationalize our contempt for nature in a way that makes sense to creatures being laid waste by our pursuit of profits? Could we explain why our over-fishing of the oceans makes sense?

When the last glacier has melted and we're up to our necks in sea water, perhaps we'll revisit the notion of which animal is really smarter.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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