Dolphins: Adorable, Playful, Not As Smart As You Might Think

Dolphins: Adorable, Playful, Not As Smart As You Might Think

9:27am Oct 07, 2014

Everyone loves dolphins. They're adorable, playful and super-intelligent, often called the geniuses of the ocean.

But recently some researchers have begun to question that last notion. When it comes to brainpower, dolphins might not be as special as you might think.

In a recent piece for New Scientist, Caroline Williams rounds up some of the dissenting opinions.

"A researcher called Paul Manger came along and said, 'OK, well all these great things that they can do — if you compare them to other mammals, they start looking less special,' and saying that we really just love them too much," Williams tells NPR's Arun Rath.

Williams says studies do show that dolphins can understand symbols the way humans do, but so can other animals.

"Paul Manger comes back and says, 'Well, so can sea lions,' and actually the sea lions learn it quicker," Williams say. "But we're not looking at sea lions and going, 'Wow, they're so intelligent, we should go and commune with them.' "

Another popular assertion is the "mirror test" and the idea that dolphins can recognize themselves or have a sense of self. Not so fast.

"If you look at the data, they perform the same behavior when the mirror's there and when it's not," Williams says.

The size of a dolphin's brain — even larger than a chimpanzee's — is often used as testimony to its intelligence, but Williams says that is also not the case.

"They do have big brains, but then again the relationship between size and intelligence is kind of a tricky one anyway," she says.

Williams says the image of dolphins as "peaceful, loving geniuses" can be traced back to Dr. John C. Lilly. Lilly thought dolphins were at least as intelligent as humans, and spent years trying to figure out a way to communicate with the creatures.

Lilly's life and work were an inspiration for the 1973 science fiction film The Day of the Dolphin. George C. Scott plays a version of Lilly — a researcher who teaches dolphins to speak English.

Williams says despite the fact that the real Lilly did outlandish things — like dropping acid with his dolphins — his research got a lot of attention.

"As a result of his early work, dolphins did start to get more attention [and] more researchers started looking into their intelligence," she says.

Williams says researcher Justin Gregg, author of Are Dolphins Smart?, wonders if similar things had been said about sea lions back then, maybe they would have been given just as much study.

"So that's been good and bad really, because it means we do understand dolphins quite well because there's been a lot of research on them," Williams says. "But maybe that has elevated them above other species — it may be fairly, but it may turn out that they are on par with other species as well."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Everyone loves dolphins. They're adorable, playful and super intelligent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The dolphins have learned a simple sign language.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The so-called big brained mammal.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Their intelligence actually rivals ours.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As far as I know, other than humans, dolphins are the only ones that can do this.

RATH: But recently, some researchers have been saying hang on a minute. Dolphins may not be as special as you think. In a recent piece for the magazine New Scientist, Caroline Williams rounds up some of the dissenting opinions.

CAROLINE WILLIAMS: A researcher called Paul Manger came along and said, OK, well, all these great things that they can do - if you compare them to other mammals, they start looking less special - and saying that we really just love them too much.

RATH: So I asked her to qualify some of the ideas we have about dolphin brilliance. What about the idea that they can understand symbols the way humans can?

WILLIAMS: Well, the studies show that they can. Paul Manger comes back and says, well, so can sea lions. And actually the sea lions learn it quicker. But we're not looking at sea lions and going, wow, they're so intelligent. We love them. You know, we should go and commune with them

RATH: OK, well, what about the mirror test? Dolphins can recognize themselves, right? So they have a sense of self. Well, not so fast say some scientists.

WILLIAMS: If you look at the data, they perform the same behavior when the mirror is there and when it's not.

RATH: But what about their huge brains?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, they do have big brains. But then again, the relationship between size and intelligence is kind of a tricky one anyway.

RATH: I asked Caroline Williams if with all the focus on dolphins, could we be overlooking the intelligence of animals that are, well, less cute and smiley?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think so. I did speak to one researcher called Justin Gregg, who's just written a book called "Are Dolphins Smart?" And he reckons that a lot of it comes down to a man called John Lilly, who was a researcher back in the '60s. And he was the one that was responsible for this image as peaceful, loving geniuses and spiritual healers and all that kind of thing.

RATH: John Lilly thought dolphins were at least as intelligent as humans and spent years trying to figure out a way to communicate with the animals. His life and work were an inspiration for the 1973 science fiction film "The Day Of The Dolphin." George C. Scott plays a version of Doctor Lilly, a researcher who actually teaches dolphins to speak English.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN")

GEORGE C. SCOTT: (As Dr. Jake Terrell) Where's the ball? What did we do with the ball?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLPHIN SPEAKING ENGLISH)

SCOTT: (As Dr. Jake Terrell) Did (unintelligible)?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLPHIN SPEAKING ENGLISH)

RATH: OK, that's a little bit silly. But Williams says that despite the fact that the real Doctor John Lilly did outlandish things like dropping acid with his dolphins, his research got a lot of attention.

WILLIAMS: As a result of his early work, dolphins did start to get more attention and more researchers started looking into their intelligence. And Justin Gregg said to me well, maybe if similar things had been said about sea lions back then, maybe they'd have had just as much studies.

So that's been good and bad really, 'cause it means that we do understand dolphins quite well, because there's been a lot of research done on them. But maybe that has elevated them above other species - maybe fairly or it may turn out that they're on a par with lots of other species as well.

RATH: Science journalist Caroline Williams wrote the piece "Behind The Smile: What Dolphins Really Think" in New Scientist magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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