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Dolphins as Persons?

The bedrock of our assumptions about human preeminence is shifting as scientists and philosophers explore the social complexity and intelligence of other species
Margi Prideaux
22 January 2010

For the past decade, scientists around the world have been mapping the breadth and depth of communities or societies of dolphins, elephants and apes, among other species recognized for their social complexity and intelligence. Despite any preconceived notions of human preeminence, scientists are discovering that these animals are engaging in complex social interactions with each other within the context of their environments. There is a tantalizing realization of cultural transmission of knowledge and skills beyond Homosapiens. With this, the bedrock of our assumptions about human kind are shifting.

Until recently the science and philosophy on this subject has not been joined in an 'acceptable', peer-reviewed forum. Indeed, until recently, there were only a small handful of academics willing to speak openly about the subject. To do so conflicted directly, and sometimes violently, with the inherit bias within human society that sees ourselves as both central and superior to everything.

Focusing on dolphins: the last decade of studies into dolphin behavior has highlighted how complex their communications actually are; so much so  that it is difficult not to draw parallels to the complexities of human communication. Empirically, their brains have many key features associated with high intelligence. It would seem that we have long underestimated their capacity, and while their intelligence is different in form, it is difficult to dismiss that it exists.

On February 21st, in San Diego, the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) addresses the subject of ‘Intelligence in Dolphins: Ethical and Policy Implications’. A panel of three well regarded academics discussed whether the emerging scientific knowledge they present should influence international policy decisions and ethical considerations for the treatment of dolphins. Their position stands on an increasingly sturdy foundation.

Dr Lori Marino at Emory University has published widely and spoken publicly about this subject. Her informed position is that dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self, can think about the future, and have the innate ability to learn language - their own, and remarkably a rudimentary symbol-based language created to bridge the communication chasm between dolphins and the human species. She asserts that because of their complex intelligence it is morally wrong for us to treat them in ways that may be psychologically harmful; that they are due our respect. Marino will present at the conference that “… the neuroanatomy [of dolphins] provides evidence for psychological continuity between humans and dolphins, and … profound implications for the ethics of human-dolphin interactions.”

Her colleague Dr Diana Reiss, of Hunter College of the City University of New York will contribute to the discussion that:  “[there is] increasing evidence for the dolphin’s cognitive-social prowess, revealing that dolphins are cultural animals - much of their behavior is learned and passed down through generations”.

Such findings do not stand in isolation. Scientists such as Dr David Lusseau at the University of Aberdeen, have engaged in long-term studies into the ecology of populations of bottlenose dolphins.  His focus has been on understanding the role that individuals play in their social networks and Lusseau’s findings reveal complex decision making and communications structures in these animals.

Dr Luke Rendell and Prof Hal Whitehead have ventured into the territory of the presence and nature of cultural processes in cetaceans. Cetaceans, they contend, provide an interesting contrast to the study of culture in humans and other terrestrial animals, since they inhabit a radically different environment and represent an independent evolution of social learning and cultural transmission.

Importantly, this discussion is not limited to science. At the AAAS conference Prof Thomas I. White, of Loyola Marymount University will join the science to philosophy, presenting that “… the similarities [between humans and dolphins] suggest that dolphins qualify for moral standing as individuals—and, therefore, are entitled to treatment of a particular sort. The differences, however, suggest that species-specific standards may apply when it comes to determining something as basic as ‘harm.’”

White’s recent book, In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier, takes this whole discussion to a deeper level addressing the ethical issues connected with human/dolphin interaction—for example, deaths and injuries of dolphins in the fishing industry or dolphins being held in captivity. He contends that “dolphins have intellectual and emotional abilities sophisticated enough to grant them ‘moral standing’; they should be regarded at least as ‘nonhuman persons’”.

While the political realm has become increasingly aware of such debates and decisions relating to the great apes, with the extension of legal rights to apes in Spain, it has been a comparatively quiet dialogue about cetaceans. However, this week, Philippa Brakes, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, has joined the discussion.  She commented that “[it] seems inevitable that sense will ultimately reign on this issue and we will come to recognise that there are other intelligences on our planet that are as worthy of protection as our own. However, the timeframe for these revelations is hard to predict. First we must begin the process of breaking down our own human-centric prejudice and let the facts speak for themselves.”

Brakes brings to the fore the core of the conundrum. The science and philosophy may point strongly towards an informed consideration of personhood for cetaceans, but the politics may not prove so simple.

Blinded by the limits of our own imagination, and an interpretation of ‘self’ so strong in human beings, many find it difficult to envision another entity with processing capabilities that rival ours. Researchers have called dolphins an ‘alien intelligence’ to portray the concept that theirs is a sophisticated, evolved intelligence, born of a differently constructed sense of self; without necessarily needing to be an ‘intellect’ directly comparable to ours

Neither does this emerging science and philosophy fit comfortably into the ‘sustainability paradigm’ which premises all of ‘nature’ as a resource for humans. In its purist form the sustainability paradigm argues if or when we use resources, we should do so in a biologically sustainable manner. Value is tied to the human economy, and the success of management is measured by percentages of species or systems remaining intact. While this academic application to the problem of managing human activities within the biosphere is impressive and commendable, there are some ironies afoot. Instead of commerce being accountable to society, we have become accountable to the global economic system. Instead of human society being accountable to the biosphere, the biosphere has become accountable to us. A tree becomes timber; a mountain or a gorilla family become ecotourism destinations; a school of bluefin tuna becomes a fishery.

In this way the sustainability paradigm actually serves development rather than our moral compass and we might wisely question if putting a development value on components of Earth is the complete answer. Did we really intended for everything to be valued and sustainably used or are some entities simply ‘beyond use’ as the current discussion about cetaceans might suggest?

In order to consciously reflect on these new perspectives we need to remove some well established blinkers that mask important information from view.

Despite the knowledge that humans are animals, by labeling other animals as a group we differentiate them (non-human) as separate from ourselves (human). We have created a perception of profound difference, even though a biological one does not exist. Centuries of religious and scientific ideologies have created a space between ourselves and other animals. Those who still hold true to a Cartesianism worldview (or its bedfellow Behavioralism – the foundation stone of modern psychology) believe that the characteristics that enable our biology to perform so-called higher functions (eg emotions, learning, tool making and self consciousness) do so because humans are uniquely evolved. Despite Darwin’s compelling logic that similar traits should equal similar abilities; that the differences in cognitive abilities and emotions among animals are differences in degree rather than differences in kind; an unreasonable weight of evidence is still required to prove this assertion, rather than the more logical requirement to disprove it.

Even when the suffering of other animals is acknowledged the moral implications of their pain are trivialized. Academics frequently inflate levels of uncertainty about the ability to recognize or ‘know’ something that appears obvious to lay-persons, requiring concrete scientific evidence before judgments can be made.

Our inability to articulate the moral importance of individual animals’ lives within the sustainability paradigm impedes our consideration of the effects of our actions on other animals; animals that society may well regard as having moral significance.

Acknowledging that at least some animals are ‘beyond use’ brings forward implications spanning across philosophy, law, science and policy. However, the evidence suggests that a challenge to the status quo of the sustainability paradigm is the next logical step.

Marino and Reiss are right to ask when the evidence of cetacean cognitive-social intelligence will influence policy. White and Brakes are right to challenge our fundamental assumptions about what drives our decisions.

Despite our common misuse of the word, ‘person’ is actually simply a legal concept that affords basic rights to a group of individuals. All humans are now considered persons (although not so long ago, at various points in history, women, children, non-landowners, minorities, slaves and other unfortunates were not). While in common speech we interchange the term 'persons' with 'people' or 'humans', they are not the same thing. A person is an individual (dolphin, human, clone, entity from another galaxy) that we respect enough to confer with basic moral rights.

No-one in this emerging field is suggesting that dolphins be granted a right to vote, to hold a drivers license, or to receive a free and fair education. Such knee jerk arguments simply reveal a poor understanding of the core meaning of a ‘right’. The moral rights thesis simply speaks to the concept of equality – a right to equal treatment despite difference.

We are simply discussing a basic right to life, the protection of individual liberty and the prohibition of torture (and possibly a right to redress for harm caused).

We should not discount or dismiss the tension this discussion creates. Such tensions propel humankind to explore additional layers to our existing worldview.

Profound – yes. Preposterous – I don't think so.

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