Looking at Flipper, Seeing Ourselves
Published: October 9, 2006

NO one blinks when a celebrity is called “vacuous” or a politician a “moron” — but when headlines screamed that dolphins are “dimwits” and “flippin’ idiots,” I was truly shocked. Is this a way to talk about an animal so revered that there are several Web domain names that include “smart dolphin”?

This is not to say that one should believe everything about them. For example, their supposed “smile” is fake (they lack the facial musculature for expressions), and all we seem to have learned from chatting “dolphinese” with them is that lone male dolphins are keenly interested in female researchers.

Nevertheless, it’s going too far to say that dolphins are dimwits. Yet this is the claim of Paul Manger, a South African scientist who says that dolphins’ relatively large brains are due simply to preponderance of fatty glial cells. These glia produce heat, which allows the brain’s neurons to do their job in the cold ocean.

Based on this observation, Professor Manger couldn’t resist speculating that the intelligence of dolphins and other cetaceans (like whales and porpoises) is vastly overrated. He offered gems of insight, such as that dolphins are too stupid to jump over a slight barrier (as when they are trapped in a tuna net), whereas most other animals will. Even a goldfish will jump out of its bowl, he noted.

If we skip the technicalities — such as that glial cells are not simply insulation, that they add connectivity to the brain, and that humans, too, have many more glial cells than neurons — the question remains why the prospect of animal intelligence sets off such controversy. Could it be that the huge size of the dolphin brain, which exceeds ours by 15 percent or more, threatens the human ego? Are we to ignore the billions and billions of neurons that dolphins do possess?

The goldfish remark reminded me of a common strategy of those who play down animal intelligence. They love to “demonstrate” remarkable cognitive feats in small-brained species: if a rat or pigeon can do it, it can’t be that special. Thus, some pigeons have been trained to use “symbolic communication” by pecking a key marked “thank you!” that delivered food to another pigeon. And they have also been conditioned to peck at their own bodies in front of a mirror, supporting the claim that they are “self-aware.”

Clearly, pigeons are trainable. But is this truly comparable to the actions of Presley, a dolphin at the New York Aquarium, who, without any rewards, reacted to being marked with paint by taking off at high speed to a distant part of his tank where a mirror was mounted? There he spun round and round, the way we do in a dressing room, appearing to check himself out.

What is so upsetting to some people about the closeness between animal and human intelligence, or between animal and human emotions, for that matter? Just saying that animals can learn from each other, and hence have rudimentary cultures, or that they can be jealous or empathic is taken by some as a personal affront. Accusations of anthropomorphism will fly, and we’ll be urged to be parsimonious in our explanations. The message is that animals are no humans.

That much is obvious. But it is equally true that humans are animals. Is it so outlandish, from an evolutionary standpoint, to assume that if a large-brained mammal acts similarly to us under similar circumstances, the psychology behind its behavior is probably similar, too? This is true parsimony in the scientific sense, the idea that the simplest explanation is often the best. Those who resist this framework are in “anthropodenial” — they cling to unproven differences.

Since Aristotle, humans have known that dolphins are incredibly social. Each individual produces its own unique whistle sound by which the others recognize him or her. They enjoy lifelong bonds and reconcile after fights by means of “petting.” The males form power-seeking coalitions, not unlike the politics of chimpanzees and humans. Dolphins also support sick companions near the surface, where they can breathe. They may encircle a school of herring, driving the fish together in a compact ball and releasing bubbles to keep them in place, after which they pick their food like fruit from a tree.

In captivity, dolphins are known to imitate the gait and gestures of people walking by, and to outsmart their keepers. One female dolphin that was rewarded with a fish for every piece of debris she managed to collect from her tank managed to con her trainers into a bounty of snacks. They discovered she had been hiding large items like newspapers underwater, only to rip small pieces from them, bringing these to her trainer one by one.

There are tons of such observations, which is why most of us believe in dolphin intelligence — glia or no glia. It also explains why the slaughter of dolphins, as still occurs every year in Japan, arouses such strong emotions and controversy.

Still, I must admit that the whole dolphin affair has also offered me some fresh insights. From now on, if I find my goldfish thrashing on the floor, I will congratulate him before dropping him back into his bowl.