Book review: Are Dolphins Really Smart?

Dolphin Balancing BallDolphins! The chirpy, smily poster children of tropical vacations and rainbow stickers, always rescuing humans from drowning or depression, and so very smart – or…are they? This is the question that “Are Dolphins Really Smart?”, by Justin Gregg, tries to answer.

Both dolphins and neuroscience have some associations with the hand-wavy corner of the non-fiction bookshelves, so you may have certain prejudices about a book focused entirely on the cognitive abilities of dolphins. Fear not – “Are Dolphins Really Smart?” takes a far more scientific approach.

And let me just spoil it for you now: Dolphins? Not as smart as we thought, and not particularly smarter than many other animals.

Gregg is a dolphin researcher who has long been aware of the popular image of dolphins as friendly and highly intelligent animals. In this book, he examines how the myth of the smart dolphin originated, and which aspects of it are true. A large part of the book is devoted to the interpretation of animal intelligence in general: Does brain size matter? What does self-awareness indicate and how can it be measured? What does “language” mean for different animals? How useful are such metrics and how can we compare between species?

The end result is a systematic analysis of dolphin intelligence that suggests that while they do show signs of intelligence, it doesn’t quite live up to the myth that dolphins have a near-human intelligence.

This book fits nicely with a more widespread awareness of various forms of intelligence in other animals, like corvids, elephants, or octopuses. Dolphins are no longer the single smart non-human animal, and “Are Dolphins Really Smart?” suggests that we might need to remove the pedestal that popular culture has placed them on.


(Dolphin image by William Warby)