May 1, 2016 cathyparkerus2015@


humpback bow hoppingIt’s a long-standing debate: just how intelligent are dolphins, whales, and porpoises [ together, called cetaceans]? I don’t think we know the answer yet. Perhaps we never will.




Hah! That’s the $64,000 question. Over time, many approaches have been tried for measuring intelligence. Humans in the past have sometimes cast about in a results-oriented way — those who believed [or still believe] that mankind is superior to all other animals tended to look for a test that proved it. Once a test didn’t put humans at the top, oops, a new test was needed. Ah the vanity of man! But to be fair, scientists, too, simply sought after better methods, and their methods differed.


Use of Tools?


Once we thought that figuring out how to use tools was the important factor in measuring intelligence, and since humans were thought to be the only tool users, that made us the most intelligent. Over the years, though, we have noticed other species using tools. Primates are a good example, using a stick to poke in a log and bring up those yummy termites, even using a branch to test water depth as they wade into a lake. Even sea gulls know enough to drop a clam on a rock to crack it. Dropping a clam on the sand just doesn’t do the trick. In this case, the rock is the tool. So what about the bubble funnels that some dolphin individuals form to force fish to the surface where they jump into the waiting jaws of fellow pod members? Seems like the bubble tunnel is a tool to me. After all, cetaceans don’t have hands; they must be more ingenious in figuring out tool possibilities.


Brain Size?


In college, many years [many many] ago, my biology prof, who was a fan of cetaceans, noted a popular theory of animal intelligence: scientists measured three factors together — brain size, brain size in comparison to body size, and number of brain convolutions. Convolutions are all those wrinkles you see in a brain, like this:



Okay, then. An elephant noggin, say, contains a very big brain. Bigger than the human brain. But in relation to body size, humans trump. And generally speaking, the old homo sapiens brain has more convolutions than your average creature. Except, guess what? According to my professor, cetaceans could beat humans in all three categories; bigger brains, bigger in comparison to body size, and with more convolutions.


So, as best I can tell, this particular test isn’t used so much any more.


Language Then?


The matter of language is a complex one. Humans have vocal chords of a type many animals don’t. They can’t speak as we can speak. Some scientists say that over thousands of years, this ability to speak and thence to write and today to convey our thoughts in more and more complex ways has itself contributed to our intelligence. Not just because we figured out how to talk, but because talking helped us learn and learning made us more intelligent. The most intelligent.


Possibly so.


But what about those monarch butterflies who migrate from Mexico hundreds and hundreds of miles north to their old summer stomping grounds. The Monarchs who made it back to Mexico last year are not the same Monarchs who fly out the next spring. And the Monarchs who reach those old stomping grounds aren’t even the same ones who left Mexico; they died along the way. Now that’s an eye-opener. These beautiful butterflies have evolved in some fashion, unlikely in a language, certainly not in a spoken/written language. But somehow they get the message to their offspring: this is where you are going, children, and this is how you get there. They have evolved to learn without speech.





And what about those bee dances telling hive members the location of that amazing flower patch where they could get all that pollen? Dance is a form of communication. Ask any modern or classic dancer around.


And what about those whale and dolphin clicks and whistles, creaks and moans, jaw snaps and high cries? We haven’t cracked the code yet, which means the language isn’t too simplistic, I suppose. We do know that individual cetaceans use characteristic “signatures” at the end of communications to identify themselves — their ‘names,’ if you like. Then, too, somehow they figure out their group tactics when they go hunting, as when some members of the pod circle around a school of unsuspecting fish and herd them right into their waiting cohorts.


Advanced Civilization?


Complex termite hills, cozy little anthills with vast tunnels below, bee hives, primate troops, dolphin pods, tribal villages, big cities. One wonders, really, how different they are.


To be sure, humans have reshaped the world in ways that no other animal can. To be sure, we have built what other animals haven’t. That good old opposable thumb. [The theory being that the shape of the human hand that gave our early ancestors access to holding and manipulating and therefore creating more complex hand tools has, over time, given us the advantage.]  Yet scientists and writers the world over have and continue to question how intelligent our re-shaping of this world has been. 


Even if we grant that we have made something fantastic of our world, that we have designed and constructed architecturally useful and beautiful facilities, complexes, parks, jacuzzis even. That we have built computers and smart phones and rocketed to the moon and someday will go to Mars, does that make us intelligent? Or rather do humans have some fantastic talents?  Quite fantastic ones. Much like the fantastic sense of smell of a wolf on land, of a shark in the water. Much like the fantastic athleticism of a jaguar, the flight of a bird.


Much like the sonar of a whale.


whale fluke copy

I do not disparage our human talents and achievements in any way. I just point out that other species may or may not value the same creations we do and therefore if THEY were in charge of measuring intelligence, very different measurements might come into play. [In fact, even among people, it hardly needs to be said that values vary. We have been made painfully aware just recently how certain groups value religion very highly and ancient artistic treasures not at all.] Watching a bird hanging in a wind draft for the sheer joy of it, I might guess what that bird values. Listening to the song of a humpback whale, I see where their value system and talents may have taken them. Looking at the organization of an ant colony, I see a species that appreciates the value of a well-organized society over ANY measurement of individual intelligence.




Not only do we disagree on how to measure intelligence among species, we have difficult measuring our own. Once we thought we had a solid handle on measuring human intelligence. And then we didn’t.


IQ tests? Depends on the particular test you take. Depends on what the test measures. Depends on whether you are a good test taker. Depends on whether you had a fight with your father on the day of the test. Depends on who designed the test. Depends on cultural biases. Depends on whether a particular glitch in your mind is impacted by the test, a glitch such as dyslexia or fear of failure. So. Not such a good measure.


Successful education? Nope. We know Einstein didn’t do so well. Nor did Bill Gates. Do you know people who do not seem particularly intelligent who have nonetheless succeeded wildly? Do you know very intelligent folks who die broke and heartbroken? Enough said.


The Ability to Learn?


Not likely. Have you ever seen the book on how to train a gold fish? 


goldfish copy


And this just in: even creatures WITHOUT BRAINS can learn. Scientists have recently shown that — wait for it — slime mold can learn. EEEEW. We had thought that neurons, those handy brain cells were required for learning. But slime mold doesn’t have those. It doesn’t have much, in fact. Slime mold is a single-celled amoeba. It eats bacteria, fungi and other similar forest wastes in much the same way it has for hundreds of millions of years. A slime mold, for example can solve a maze to  find its way out. Slime mold can also figure out the best way to get across a bridge made of quinine or caffeine, which taste terrible to them. In tests, they traveled right across a good-tasting bridge in one blob. If the bridge was made of bad-tasting stuff, a mold extende thin tendrils across and transported its mass slowly. Not only that, but after a time, when they realized [realized?] that the bad tasting stuff would not actually harm them, they started moving faster again. AND even though a slime mold had become used to, say, the caffeine bridge, they started the ‘learning’ process all over again when it came to an unpleasant quinine bridge.

slime mold copy

[The above variety is known as ‘dog vomit’ slime mold.’ Thought you’d want to know.] So if the ability to figure out how to even measure intelligence is so slippery, why do we even bother asking about cetacean intelligence?




Some People Ask Because they Believe in their Superiority


One reason, I suspect, is that certain people may be just slightly uneasy about how intelligent dolphins and whales seem to be. What if their intelligence impacted that certainty I mentioned at the beginning of this blog — the firm conviction that mankind is superior, must be superior, can be proven to be superior to any other creature. That man rules the earth.


Pondering such a philosophy, not shared by this blogger, would be a subject for another time, another place. But I would have them ask themselves: If we are the best learners, what can we learn from the types of intelligence exhibited by other animals? If we rule the world, how can we shape the best world for all living creatures on this world including ourselves, not just the most convenient world? If we have the most soaring imaginations, what can we take from the designs and habits and creations of other living creatures and blend into our own future world?


And just what is it about whales and dolphins that so attracts humankind? [except for the Japanese]


Curious Creatures are We


Another reason we wonder about cetacean intelligence is simply that humans are curious creatures. We are always asking questions. As is my cat. [what’s in this closet, what’s on your plate there, why are you leaving, when can I eat?]  


I read an interesting article the other day about whether cats or dogs are smarter. Dogs and cats weren’t asking [in their minds, the answer is quite clear]. Humankind, of course, was asking. The article approached the question the only way it could, by measuring what cats and dogs can accomplish. And because they have different talents and different approaches to life, the question was left in doubt. If one admired certain traits over others, one could pick either animal, although perhaps on the measurements cited, dogs had a slight edge on points. Still, you never know what traits the humans might not have known to measure.


[I have read also that pigs are smarter than either cats or dogs. We don’t make much of pig intelligence for some reason.]


I love our curious nature. From this perspective, it is fun to ask how Intelligent dolphins and whales are and how animal intelligence compares to our own. And because we haven’t really pegged how we can measure smarts, the question poses challenges. And we humans do love a challenge!



When We Ask, We Learn 


By the very asking of the question of cetacean intelligence, we are driven to look closely at these magnificent creatures. We are driven to study them, to understand them. I believe that when we do that, we will only admire them more, only love them better.


Could the Dolphins’ Day in the Limelight be Yet to Come?


One’s intelligence is also measured by the Age in which one lives. Henry Ford was a genius for his time because he could take a car apart, analyze it, and figure out how to produce it on an assembly line when others couldn’t and when the time had come when it could be done. [machines invented. Electricity. And so forth.]. Bill Gates is a genius in his time because he could figure out computer code and what to do with it and how to improve it. That skill might not have availed him much in 200 B.C. Mozart was a genius, from his own time forward, because civilization had advanced to the point where music mattered on a scale beyond one’s own village or tribe. The Mozart who was born in Neanderthal times would have been appreciated by the locals, perhaps, but not revered for centuries of western culture, as would be that wonderful guy who invented fire.


I wonder, I just wonder, if a time will come when we understand the cetaceans better, when we appreciate their genius more, when, by our standards of the day, we value their genius, perhaps even above our own. What a strange and interesting shift that would be. Frightening too, wouldn’t you say? I wonder if mankind would be gracious and ‘superior’ enough to live well in such a world.

Author Cathy Parker

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