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?
Justin Gregg’s new book, Are Dolphins Really Smart?: the mammal behind the myth, weighs up the claims made about dolphin intelligence and separates scientific fact from fiction. He presents the results of the latest research in animal behavior, and puts our knowledge about them 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 actually be thinking. Gregg’s evidence-based approach creates a comprehensive and up-to-date study of this fascinating animal which will appeal to all those intrigued by dolphin behavior.
Popular perception assumes that dolphins are kind of smart. Kind of like the chimps of the ocean. Gregg’s book is reviewed by Jessa Gamble on The Last Word On Nothing. Gamble says:
A disproportionate amount of dolphin research time has been devoted to teasing out any potential for language – the science-fictional myth of dolphinese – from their vocalizations. If dolphins had language, we would almost certainly have found it by now. When their vocalizations turned out to be rote and inflexible, “I’m scared!” “I’m mating!” “I see food!” pretty much covers it, the research turned to echolocation clicks. Perhaps dolphins were sending each other 3D holographic messages encoded in their clicks. Nope.
They do have signature whistles that identify the dolphin as an individual, but that’s the most referential thing about their communication system. In contrast, ground squirrels have an amazingly semantically-rich signaling system. Nothing about the dolphin whistle repertoire would prevent it from being used as a discrete combinatorial system to convey unlimited meaning, it’s just that dolphins don’t use it for that. “Scientists have no impetus for continuing this line of research,” concludes Gregg.
Though captive dolphins have been taught to understand series of symbols, in much the same way Great Apes and parrots have, they show no sign of being able to produce them, in the way that chimps can. Dolphins are more like domestic dogs in this way, but without the vast memory for symbol repertoires displayed by Collies.
Scientists need attention, too so, I guess they just went with what was cool and funny and popular, and didn’t rock the boat too much.
And maybe we are prejudiced because dolphins are cute and we had Flipper to set the dolphin agenda, and then Douglas Adams had them taking all the fish, and no one really cares how smart a squirrel is because one looks like vermin and disease ridden, although they have nice bushy tails.
On the other hand, it could be that we are just desperate to prove that we are not alone so that we can take the pressure off and not have to use our brains for something better than they are being used for right now because, we can’t deal with being so responsible for making the right choices.
Next, research will ultimately prove that dogs don’t really like people and are just sucking up to whomever is willing to feed and house them and that they are really devoted because they really don’t want to have to live in a dog eat dog world.