Dolphin Intelligence: Will it challenge what it is to be human?

31 January 2008

Culture, language and consciousness are the three characteristics that make humans unique in the living world. These three features of our minds were used to justify the divide that we have created between the human and the animal world. However, over the past half a century such distinctions have become increasingly blurred. Perhaps it was not such a surprise when primatologists first presented evidence of culture, language use, and even behaviour that suggested self-awareness in the other primates as well. After all, we have all been guilty of anthropomorphising those animals whose very facial expressions appear so human and whose mannerisms reflect our own tendencies. Dolphins, on the other hand, are more distant relatives and, as a result of this, we have in the past struggled to gain an understanding of just how intelligent they were. But recent investigations have sparked what may lead to a more quantitative understanding of dolphin intelligence, and provoke a complete rethinking in the way that we separate us from ‘them’. The most convincing evidence that dolphins do indeed have culture is their ability to use tools. Culture can be defined as the passing down of information from one generation to the next via social transmission. Since tool use is not inheritable, it satisfies this definition. In 2005, tool use was detected in certain groups of dolphins in Australia. Dolphins make their tools by braking off conical shaped sponge. They then appear to use the sponges as protective gloves over their snouts whilst foraging. A report in 2007 also showed they use algae to decorate themselves and attract mates. Primates, dolphins and even birds (most notably New Caledonian Crows) have been shown to use tools and have cultures. Dolphins are also able to recognise themselves in a mirror, suggesting some degree of self-awareness, but it can hardly be considered synonymous with consciousness. Physical and neurological aspects of our own consciousness are poorly understood. Until we have a better understanding of what consciousness is and how and why it arises, which may take some time, it seems impossible for us to test for this characteristic in animals. What looks rather more likely to being unravelled in the near future is language use in dolphins. The study of language in animals has in the past focused upon animals’ ability to comprehend our own language, often through the use of sign language. A particular dolphin called Akeakamai, trained by Herman, demonstrated some understanding of both semantics and syntax. These results were controversial as sceptics argued that Akeakamai’s training merely allowed her to develop a series of conditioned responses. But how many humans do you know that speak ‘dolphinese’? It might be better to study dolphin’s use and understanding of their own ‘language’, not ours. Dolphin communication includes a variety of clicks, whistles and other vocalisations. A recent project by Liz Hawkins in Australia has identified 200 different whistles that are made by dolphins and is beginning to assign labels to these sounds that correspond to certain behaviours. Each dolphin has its own individual whistle that is thought to be analogous to its name. We are largely ignorant of just how complex their communication is and other than calling their own name, what they might even be saying to each other. Perhaps it is indeed beyond our own intelligence to interpret ‘dolphinese’. Recent research has therefore looked towards developing machines that can decode dolphin whistles for us. If this is to have success, which looks highly probable, then we will come significantly closer to understanding not only dolphin intelligence, but also the viability of the boundaries that we have set between humans and animals. Listen to dolphin sounds here: