So dolphins are people. Well, ‘non-human persons’ to be more accurate, and as such they deserve to have the same rights and be protected as humans.
That’s the extraordinary conclusion that scientists came to this week. Their claim — made at the world’s biggest science conference, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver — has been prompted by the latest findings about the amazing abilities of dolphins and whales.
Studies now show that these cetaceans, as they are technically known, possess the next most impressive brains after humans, even ranking above the great apes.
As Tom White, a professor in philosophy and ethics and a key figure behind this week’s call, told me recently: ‘We’ve reached the point where we need to talk about the dolphin as a who, not a what.’
Man has had a long-standing fascination with these creatures. Sleek, exquisitely hydrodynamic and with a mouth that suggests they’re always smiling, their size, shape and deeply expressive eyes seem to mark them out almost as watery versions of ourselves.
For centuries, humans have realised that dolphins are not like other animals, and no one who has seen a pod of dolphins joyously riding the bow wave of a boat would deny that the sight makes their heart soar.
There have been instances when dolphins have appeared to save drowning swimmers — even circling around them to defend them against sharks. In New Zealand, in the early 1900s, a dolphin nicknamed Pelorus Jack — named after the nearby Pelorus Sounds — appeared to guide ships between the dangerous Cook Strait that divides the country’s North and South Islands. He delighted passers-by such as Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain, and in 1904 became the first cetacean to be protected by law after he was shot at by a passing ship.
But it was only in the 1960s, when we started to keep them in captivity, that we began to realise the true nature of dolphin intelligence. Experiments with captive animals showed they communicated by using sonar ‘clicks’ — noises they emit through their blow holes.
Experts believe dolphins should have the same kind of rights as humans in being able to live peacefully in a safe environment
Each animal has its own signature whistle which it uses to identify or introduce itself — in effect, its own name. Crucially, this indicated a sense of individuality, and of self-awareness.
Dr John C. Lilly conducted bizarre and unique experiments with dolphins at his scientific base in the Caribbean. He constructed a semi-submerged house in which his researchers lived with a dolphin called Peter for several weeks — literally sharing the same rooms.
It was just deep enough for Peter to swim in, and shallow enough for the researchers to wade through, working and sleeping on floating desks and beds.
But Dr Lilly, who declared dolphins spoke ‘dolphinese’ and were in fact ‘aliens’ sharing our planet, went too far. He then dosed them with the psychedelic drug, LSD, which killed them, and his extreme ideas discredited dolphin science for a generation.
Experts believe that within a generation we will have learned to 'talk' to dolphins by decoding their clicks
Now, though, amazing new work is being done.
We have long known that trainers are able, using signs and sounds, to instruct the animals to do tricks. Now, we are told, we may soon be able to translate their clicks.
Experts believe that within a generation we will have learned to ‘talk’ to dolphins by decoding their clicks, 200 different types of which have already been identified.
Further experiments have shown that captive dolphins can recognise themselves, and not only in mirrors. In 1995, an experiment in Hawaii showed they can also watch themselves on television.
Back in 1964, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted that by the year 2000, humans would be training primates and cetaceans to work for them as slaves.
That isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. The U.S. Navy has used dolphins in covert warfare since the 1960s, laying underwater mines. Trained dolphins were used in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War to clear such mines.
Physician and philosopher Dr John C Lilly once theorised that dolphins spoke 'dolphinese' and were in fact 'aliens' sharing our planet
At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, dolphins pick up any litter that falls in their pool. They take it to their trainer, who rewards them with fish.
But Kelly the dolphin is outsmarting her captors. She stashes rubbish under a rock and hands it back only when she’s feeling peckish. It’s another indication of intelligence: it shows that she’s thinking ahead.
So, too, is the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia. They carry sponges from the reef to protect their noses when grubbing for food on the ocean bed. Other dolphins have been seen blowing delicate rings of bubbles, merely for their own amusement — raising the notion that these highly intelligent animals may also sometimes get bored, like we do.
So what’s going on in the dolphin mind? Analysis shows that in the key indicator of intelligence, ratio of brain weight to spinal cord weight, humans measure 50 to 1, dolphins 40 to 1, and primates only 8 to 1.
As a result, dolphins have the capacity for tool use and emotion.
I’ve seen dusky dolphins in New Zealand carrying ‘bouquets’ of seaweed in their beaks, apparently in an effort to impress potential mates.
Like humans and some primates, dolphins are also rare in that they have sex for its own sake, for pleasure, as well as for procreation.
Certainly, dolphin brains are differently structured to human brains. As Tom White has shown in his book In Defense of Dolphins, their brains are better wired than ours in the areas that deal with emotions.
Reports state that cetaceans may have three times as many spindle cells — the nerve cells that convey empathy — in their brains as we do. Professor White suggests this might mean these highly social animals have a great awareness of one another’s feelings — precisely because they live together in close proximity so need to get along.
Dolphins may even show more emotional self-control, and deeper emotions, than humans.
But he goes further, hypothesising that they may even show more emotional self-control, and deeper emotions, than humans.
Using their sonar — which acts like an MRI scanner — dolphins can actually see into each other’s bodies. They can therefore detect the temperature fluctuations that indicate changing emotion. In other words, they cannot lie about the way they are feeling the way humans often do!
They can also almost literally feel one another’s joy, or pain. This is one reason why they sometimes get stranded on beaches in huge numbers. When one dolphin is sick, its comrades will accompany it, loyally — even to the point of apparent suicide.
Of course, with intelligence comes deviousness. Recently, I attended the dissection of a harbour porpoise carried out by Dr Rob Deaville of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme at the Institute of Zoology, London Zoo.
The animal appeared to be unmarked, and the cause of death a mystery. But when Dr Deaville cut into the carcase, every rib had been snapped and its liver split in two. In fact, it had been killed by its sizeably bigger cousins, the bottle-nose dolphins of Cardigan Bay. They’d headbutted it to death, not for food, just for kicks.
In the past five years, at least 300 such porpoise victims have been found on the Welsh beach.
Such mind-blowing notions contribute to this week’s declaration by scientists at the Vancouver conference. They believe that whales and dolphins, along with apes and elephants, should have special protected status; that such ‘non-human persons’ should have the same kind of rights as we do — to live peacefully in a safe environment and not be held captive for mere entertainment.
It would be a major advance in the way we regard cetaceans — especially in this the 30th anniversary of the 1982 international moratorium on whaling. For it would certainly put paid to the whaling operations of Japan, Norway and Iceland.
We simply could not go on allowing these beautiful, highly complex animals to be hunted, or kept captive, if we acknowledged they might be almost as intelligent as us.
n Philip Hoare’s book Leviathan, Or The Whale is published by Fourth Estate.