Scientists studying dolphin behavior have suggested they could be the most intelligent creatures on Earth after humans, saying the size of their brains in relation to body size is larger than that of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and their behaviors suggest complex intelligence. One scientist said they should therefore be treated as “non-human persons” and granted rights as individuals.
The behavioral studies showed dolphins (especially the bottlenose) have distinct personalities and self-awareness, and they can think about the future. The research also confirmed dolphins have complex social structures, with individuals co-operating to solve difficult problems or to round up shoals of fish to eat, and with new behaviors being passed from one dolphin to another.
Basically, the article says that by every neurological and behavioral standard of intelligence we know, dolphins rate nearly equal to humans. Indeed, the article leaves out some things, like the fact that they can understand spoken English, the fact that they give themselves names, and the fact that in some cognitive areas, their brains seem to be even more developed than ours. According to the paper A Comparison of Primate and Dolphin Intelligence as a Metaphor for the Validity of Comparative Studies of Intelligence, “In certain areas of the brain concerned with ‘emotional control, objectivity, reality orientation, humor, logically consistent abstract thought and higher creativity’ dolphins have [a] higher ratio of neural density” than humans. So even if dolphins aren’t quite as smart as we are (and that’s far from certain), they’re probably a lot saner.
The researchers are going to present their findings at a conference next month and try to launch a debate on whether dolphin rights should be protected. Personally, I’ve been in favor of that for a long time. The evidence is overwhelming that humans are not the only sentient, self-aware beings — the only people — on this planet. Science fiction has gotten us used to the idea of coexisting with alien species from other worlds, respecting their personhood and their rights, but it’s time we got used to the idea that we don’t have to travel to other stars to find alien intelligences. To me, as an SF fan and writer, it’s an exciting prospect.
Of course, recognizing the personhood of dolphins — and in particular, recognizing their right not to be killed — would require us to change the way we interact with the world’s oceans. But then, that’s something we need to do anyway, for our own safety as well as that of the rest of the biosphere. Maybe this would be a push in the right direction.
It will naturally take a long time, probably a generation or more, to bring society and lawmakers around on this issue. But that’s all the more reason to get started now.