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Book review: Are Dolphins Really Smart?

by Eva Amsen

Dolphin Balancing Ball - are dolphins really smart?Dolphins! The chirpy, smiley 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.)


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Linda Smith November 1, 2013 - 12:54 AM

I respectfully disagree… and I am waiting for expert’s reply on this, coz I’ve read some already, and researchers don’t seem happy.
Though I haven’t finished reading the book, it seems to me that he is biased towards proving dolphins are not that smart, but also, that any other animal is not that smart… I hope it has nothing to do with the fact that he works for a journal that is being funded by the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association.

Eva November 1, 2013 - 1:27 AM

I read it as: yes, they’re smart, but not as smart as humans, and not necessarily smarter than many other animals. Also, in an article on Huffington Post, the author says “Are Dolphins Really Smart? is not a book about the stupidity of dolphins. It’s a book about the underappreciated intelligence of the other species with which we share this planet.”

Linda Smith November 1, 2013 - 2:24 PM

Again, I respectfully disagree… though the author claims what you are in fact saying, it is not how the book is written. It is more, in my opinion, a matter of humans being way above all of the other animals, and dolphins just down there with the rest of animals (i.e., other animals did not climb a step upwards, dolphins and the rest, climbed down several steps)
I think it is a subjective interpretation of science. There are many contradictions within the book, and I find it very insulting for the dolphin researchers given his tendency of dismissing mostly every research on dolphin cognition and categorising wild behaviour as “anecdotal” and therefore not including them in dolphins cognition capacities.
I repeat, I have not finished reading the book, but what he’s claimed in many interviews, it not what he says on the book… and I am afraid what people might think after reading this book, because it does not help in any way to science or dolphin conservation, but actually the oposite.

Linda Smith November 1, 2013 - 2:28 PM

Oh, and if the definition of intelligence that you use is comparing other animal’s behaviour to human behaviour
1) you’ll never find an animal smarter than humans
2) you are not bearing in mind that other animals did not evolve in human-like environments (especially dolphins!) and therefore their cognition capacities can’t and should not be compared to humans the way he’s done it.
He certainly read a lot, and makes really good points and arguments… just the arguments are not correct.
This is my opinion.

Nicki November 7, 2013 - 7:18 PM

Okay…I agree with Linda’s comments. However I can’t say much since I haven’t read enough to get a proper picture about this book. But I can say that it is very difficult to measure intelligence and it’s rather difficult if not impossible to compare between humans and other animals, especially if that animal chose to live in a complete different environment. Evolution is very important in that point and should be taken into account. I read the author’s essay about the special bond between humans and dolphins. People forget that dolphins are normal animals and aggression is a normal behaviour, also in humans! It doesn’t contradict friendliness. But with that I don’t want to say dolphins are friendly, I see them as normal biological beeings, not especially friendly. For me, in his arguments the biological background and evolutionary understanding of behaviour is missing. In general, to me it sound more philosophical rather than scientific.

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