Scientists who have studied the remarkable lives of dolphins have found themselves in a bit of an ethical quagmire.
There seems to be little doubt now that dolphins are surprisingly intelligent, know who they are as individuals, and engage in cultural traditions that can be passed on to succeeding generations. In short, they are a lot like humans.
So, should they be treated as "persons"? Should they be recognized as fellow travelers on this planet, rather than captive exhibitionists or laboratory specimens?
Leaders in the field held a standing-room-only symposium last Sunday in San Diego during the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and they got an earful.
"The response was very much divided," Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and animal behaviorist at Emory University said in a telephone interview. Marino was a co-investigator in a convincing experiment that showed in 2001 how dolphins are incredibly self-aware, returning to a mirror over and over again to check out their bodies.
Determining animal intelligence is a thorny problem, even if the animals are somewhat like ourselves. But it's especially difficult if the animals are very different from us, and live in a world that is unlike ours, but clearly have active minds.
Do other animals ponder the stars and wonder about the universe? Probably not. But research shows that dolphins can at least think about the future.
Findings like that have led some distinguished scientists and ethicists to suggest we need to rethink our role as humans. It turns out we are not alone, and we didn't need to journey into space to find out.
Thomas I. White of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles told the AAAS session that dolphins should be regarded as "non-human persons," a phrase that has caught on among some scientists.
"Like humans, dolphins appear to be self-conscious, unique individuals with distinctive personalities, memories and a sense of self, who are vulnerable to a wide range of physical and emotional pain and harm, and who have the power to reflect upon and choose their actions," White told an audience that lingered long after the session had ended because participants wanted to discuss the issue further.
Giving "person" status to another creature could embolden radical animal protectionists, thus complicating the lives of scientists who depend on a wide range of animals for laboratory research.
But the evidence that some animals are more like us than we might want to believe is so compelling that Marino, one of the leaders in dolphin research, vowed in the telephone interview that she would now study only dolphins in nature, not captivity.
That's significant, because Marino and a colleague, Diana Reiss, successfully carried out one of the most compelling experiments in the relatively brief history of research into intelligence among marine animals.