10 min read

Whales And Dolphins' Intelligence Is Being Incorrectly Judged

<p> Whit Welles / <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Humpback_stellwagen_edit.jpg" target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons </a>(<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en" target="_blank">CC BY 3.0</a>)<span></span><span></span> </p>

We are hardly the "paragon of animals" (Shakespeare, "Hamlet"), rather each animal is a paragon unto its species. In fact, let's just leave ourselves out of the equation for a minute - "us," "we," us/we who pollute, over populate, destroy, kill unnecessarily, enslave, abuse, and claim domination over a planet and its inhabitants whose mysteries (including ours) are still unknown to us. Why do "we" do this? Because we have created the tools to do so? Because it is our right? Because we can?

One of my favorite sequences in a film (looking past its use of animals) is in the film version of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy." In the opening scene, the narrator explains that humans, are not the most intelligent species on the planet, and that dolphins are ranked above them. Anyone who is familiar with the novel, or the film, knows that the main conflict is Earth's impending doom and destruction, so that an intergalactic highway can be built, and the dolphins had been trying all along to warn the humans of this doomsday, but "we" weren't intelligent enough to understand "them." So they, in film, quite literally jump up and leave (as seen in this YouTube clip). (The irony is palpable, enjoy.) Who anointed us the most intelligent species on the planet any way? Oh right, we did.

In his essay, "The Cetacean Brain and Hominid Perceptions of Cetacean Intelligence," Captain Paul Watson is spot on with his assertion that the problem with the way we perceive animals, and in this specific circumstance cetaceans, is our measure of what is intelligent. In Jonathan Balcombe's book, "The Inner Lives of Animals," he argues that a species' intelligence is an inappropriate measure of its moral standing (44). Why? Well, because we are using a system that is scaled to "our" perception of what is intelligent. Philosopher Peter Singer in "Animal Liberation or Animal Rights?" (3) asks, are there not humans who are less intelligent than other humans? What about their moral standing? What about babies and children? We don't enslave them, or treat them badly because they lack what we perceive as "intelligence." That is because an infant's intelligence is different than our own. It gives a mother biological signals, like crying which stimulates milk production, or signals for the mother to check its nappy, etc. An infant's intelligence is not to be underestimated; it is really the parents' intelligence that is challenged because a large percentage of being a parent to an infant is interpreting these signals. So, again, measuring up intelligence to our own, to those who do not possess the same capacities, yet possess other unique capacities, is inadequate.

Everyone has heard Aesop's fable "The Crow and the Pitcher" - well, that's not really a fable anymore. Crows have the ability to problem solve and use tools! So from that standpoint, a crow is also intelligent (not to mention a bird's intelligence with regard to navigation using Earth's magnetic field; no human, or computer can beat them). How's that for being a birdbrain?

Another example includes Bubba (one of my dogs). If you hid one of my black winter gloves in the woods behind my house, and you asked me to find it by using my sense of smell, I'd fail. (I'd laugh first and tell you that you were crazy.) However, if you asked Bubba to find it, he would find it. He might do a few circles, and not follow the scent in a straight line, but that's because scent doesn't travel that way. Why would he find it, but not me? Because from an olfaction point of view (and it is a point of view) Bubba is more intelligent than I am. His sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more perceptive than mine is. That's incredible and it's impossible to deny him intelligence from that standpoint. Now, if you were to ask Bubba to bake a chocolate cake, he'd fail, but I wouldn't, why? Because I have a different skill set, and different type of intelligence. That's why it would be silly to base an animal's moral standing on "our" perception of intelligence. We wouldn't want another animal to do that to us! We'd be in big, big trouble!

Now, what about the built-in capabilities of a cetacean, like their sonar which is far superior to our man-made sonar, or what about the organic/biological "sonic ray-gun" (Watson) of a sperm whale. I don't have anything like, and I'm pretty sure no human has that type of capability. In Captain Watson's essay, he envisions a future where humans are able to communicate with cetaceans. My only hope here is that when we can intelligently communicate with cetaceans, the first thing we communicate is something along the lines of, "Forgive us." For now, everyone should be doing their best to be excellent stewards of this planet that we inhabit. It belongs to everyone and to everything.


"The Crow and the Pitcher An Aesop's Fable." The Crow and the Pitcher an Aesop's Fable. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.

Balcombe, Jonathan P. Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Legget, Hadley. "Clever Crows Prove Aesop's Fable Is More Than Fiction | Science | WIRED." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 06 Aug. 2009. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.

Singer, Peter. "Animal Liberation or Animal Rights?" Ed. Sherwood J. B. Sugden. Monist 70.1 (1987): 3-14. Web.

Watson, Paul. "The Cetacean Brain and Hominid Perceptions of Cetacean Intelligence." Date unknown. SeaShepherd.org.

Originally published on AnimalPerspectives.Com