Book review – Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth

Based on the book’s title I was expecting a myth-busting pop-science book. There is some of that, but this book is foremost a very thorough and in-depth literature review of decades worth of research on dolphins to give an as dispassionate and impartial analysis as possible of what the science is, or is not, telling us about dolphin intelligence.

Are Dolphins Really Smart

Are Dolphins Really smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth”, written by Justin Gregg, published by Oxford University Press in September 2013 (hardback) and March 2015 (paperback) – 320 pages

Why single out dolphins for such a topic, when many other animals such as primates, elephants and bird species have also been shown to be remarkably clever creatures? Because Lilly.

Though Casey described Lilly’s work in Voices in the Ocean, Justin Gregg is in a far better position to introduce him and the effect his work has had on popular beliefs about dolphins. Lilly made grand claims about dolphins being the next most intelligent creatures on earth after humans, and was convinced they had a language as complex as, or even more complicated than, human language. As he retreated to the US West Coast and became a spiritual leader, he continued to publish books combining New Age ideologies with (bad) science. Add to that new discoveries by other scientists and further fanciful speculation, and you get a complex mixture of truths, half-truths, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods. Though this book is not intended to specifically bash Lilly’s work, many of these ideas did originate with him.

After an extended discussion on how to actually define intelligence, and noting that, really, the only hard-science approach to this is the study of cognition (how the brain processes information), Gregg settles for the perhaps not so scientific definition of intelligence as “how closely does it resemble an adult human’s behaviour?”. Though he himself thinks this is not ideal, it is exactly this likeness to humans that is often brought up as an argument by advocates of animal welfare and animal rights to give dolphins special protection and standing.

“Why single out dolphins […] when many other animals such as primates, elephants and bird species have also been shown to be remarkably clever creatures? Because Lilly.”

So, with caveats in place, Gregg takes the corpus of myths and divides it into five themes that he carefully dissects. The first three topics (dolphins have unusually large and sophisticated brains; are unusually complex vis-a-vis self-awareness, consciousness and emotion; and display unusually sophisticated behaviour) are actually the more technical and relatively difficult to read. Gregg does a good job of not burying the reader under jargon and introduces terminology, but the field is what it is, so buckle up for reading a lot about abstract concepts such as agency, metacognition and theory of mind. The conclusion of each of these chapters is that science is still very much in the dark as to what to make of all the findings, and experts disagree amongst themselves over interpretations of the data. We know a lot about dolphin brain anatomy, but how this relates to behaviour and cognition is still largely unknown. It’s hard to attribute much for sure to the size or presence/absence of brain regions, as brains are incredibly flexible. Where self-awareness, consciousness and emotion are concerned, the evidence is at times tantalising, but methodologies are often fraught with problems of interpretation, and although animals have basic emotions, the question of whether or not they subjectively experience them is another matter, and that’s before we even start talking about complex emotions such as empathy and jealousy. Where it comes to behaviour, there is a lot of anecdotal and empirical evidence where problem-solving, play, tool use and culture are concerned, but the same applies here as for the previous two chapters: dolphins are not unique. The more we look, the more we find examples of this in other species; elephants, primates, birds, insects and many, many others have revealed the same or superior traits and performance when we talk about brain structure, awareness and complex behaviours.

The real myth-busting happens in the last two chapters, which deal with the ideas that dolphins speak a language (affectionately known as dolphinese) as complex as humans that we will one day decipher, and that dolphins live unusually complex social lives in peaceful harmony with each other and their environment. These ideas too originate largely with Lilly, and here the New Age ideologies shine through more clearly. These chapters make for easier reading, as the empirical evidence is clear-cut and, bar the occasional crackpot, there is a clear scientific consensus that is in contradiction with these ideas. Yes, dolphins communicate, but dolphinese is a myth, and yes, dolphins, like many other animals, lead complex social lives, but this includes a healthy dose of aggressive behaviour including infanticide and inter-species aggression. To claim otherwise is cherry-picking and ignores a large body of observations, both by scientists and the general public.

The final chapter asks us what all this means for the ethical treatment of dolphins. Here too, scientists disagree and two large schools of thought are apparent; on the one hand, there are Marian Stamp Dawkins and others who warn for over-interpreting and exaggerating the murky body of scientific evidence on animal consciousness, which could backfire, on the other hand, there are Marc Bekoff and others who acknowledge this but say that the responsible ethical stance is to give such animals the benefit of the doubt. But, as Gregg points out, this is an exercise in philosophy and politics, not science.

So, are dolphins really smart? That depends on your definition, and on your own preconceptions and notions on this. You might find yourself bolstered in what you already knew, delighted by the wondrous animal that is the dolphin, or perhaps shaken in your notions. The only thing I wonder is how much of this book is preaching to the converted. Will those who have the most deluded ideas on this topic – and who really ought to read this book – have the interest, patience or willingness to delve into the nitty-gritty of the scientific debate? That caveat aside, Are Dolphins Really Smart? is an admirable achievement that I thoroughly recommend to read before or alongside other books on this topic. A lot of the research that has led to recent books (Herzing & Johnson’s 2015 book Dolphin Communication and Cognition: Past, Present, and Future, and Rendell & Whitehead’s 2014 book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins) is reviewed and put into the context of research on animal cognition at large, and Gregg isn’t afraid to disagree with fellow scientists or temper their claims and conclusions.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Are Dolphins Really Smart? paperback, hardback, ebook or audiobook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:


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