Flipper Fail: Dolphins May be Dumber Than We Think

PHOTO: Dolphins May Not Be As Smart As We Think

For decades, it's been common knowledge that dolphins are among the world's smartest species. Now some researchers -- and a new book -- argue the supposed underwater geniuses aren't so special after all.

Their social lives are complex, and they can congregate in large groups. Their heart rates increase when they notice a family member suffering. They sound the alarm when they discover food or a potential threat. And experiments have shown they even anticipate future events.

Biologist Justin Gregg is talking about chickens.

Chickens, says Gregg, "are not as dim-witted as popular opinion would have us believe." He adds, "Some of these complex behaviors have also been observed in dolphins."

Really? Are chickens as smart as dolphins? Or, to put it differently: "Are dolphins really smart?" This is the question Gregg, a zoologist with the US-based Dolphin Communication Project, asks in his new book of the same name. And he isn't the only one finding fault with Flipper's brainpower.

For more than 50 years, the dolphin has been viewed as an especially intelligent creature, grouped together with human beings and great apes. But now a dispute on the subject has erupted among scientists, and the smart aleck of the seas may end up being just an average mammal. "We put them on a pedestal for no reason and projected a lot of our desires and wishes on them," says neuroethologist Paul Manger of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. According to the professor, the claims that dolphins have a particularly complex brain, use a sophisticated language, are self-aware and can use tools are nonsense.

In some cases, says Manger, dolphins -- which are small whales -- are even outdone by goldfish. When goldfish are placed in a bowl, he explains, they at least try to escape by boldly jumping out, whereas dolphins that have been captured in nets won't even think of jumping to freedom. "The idea of the exceptionally intelligent dolphin is a myth," Manger concludes.

Origins of the Dolphin Myth

In the 1950s, physician and neuroscientist John Lilly played the crucial role in the elevation of dolphins from the status of stupid, fish-like creatures with excellent swimming skills to that of underwater know-it-all. In eerie-sounding experiments, Lilly attached electrodes to the brains of living dolphins to stimulate neurons. One day, a dolphin hooked up to his equipment began making loud noises as it approached its horrible death. When Lilly slowed down and played back the audio recordings, he concluded the dolphin was trying to communicate with its tormenters.

After further experiments, Lilly became convinced dolphins had a human-like faculty of speech and attempted to establish contact with the marine mammals. His desire to communicate was so great he administered LSD to himself and the dolphins in the hopes of stimulating conversation.

He soon moved to the American West Coast, where he became a spiritual leader of the hippy generation and wrote books in which he combined New Age ideology with half-baked dolphin research. The animals, Lilly gushed, were "more intelligent than any man or woman." He even attributed them philosophy, ethics and an "ancient vocal history."

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