The Search for Non-Human Intelligence
Copyright © 1981 by David R. Woolley
In a remote corner of New Mexico the 1026 radio telescopes of Project Cyclops slowly turn to track the star Tau Ceti as it makes its way across the sky. Each 100-meter dish is aimed and synchronized with the others by a computer. Together they form an immense telescope 10 kilometers wide, straining across the light years in search of signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.
Cyclops has not yet been built, and considering that it would cost $50 billion or so it is not likely to progress beyond plans in a NASA filing cabinet in the near future. Since 1960 several similar projects have been carried out on a much smaller scale but have failed to turn up any evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Project Cyclops is the kind of proposal that the Carl Sagans of the world love to dream about because it is just barely gigantic enough that it might have a slim chance of finding something. Yet this search for other civilizations is probably misguided. Not because the universe is empty — there likely are thousands of intelligent races in our own galaxy, even if they are out of reach of our present technology. But we might not recognize intelligence if it walked up and kicked sand in our faces. Building Cyclops would be something like ransacking the house for your car keys when all the time they are in your pocket.
To find a non-human intelligence we need look no further than our own oceans. Though most people are only dimly aware of it, if at all, we share this planet with another group of sentient beings: the cetaceans.
There are about 100 species of cetaceans, variously called whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from 4-foot porpoises to enormous blue whales over 100 feet long, the largest animals ever to have lived on the earth. They are apparently the descendants of land mammals which returned to the sea millions of years ago. Their buoyancy in the water allowed their bodies to grow to sizes that would not have been viable on dry land, and their massive bodies became capable of housing larger, more sophisticated brains.
Of all the cetaceans the bottle-nosed dolphin is probably the most familiar. They live near the coasts, preferring warm, shallow water, and are very friendly with humans. They are favorites at marine shows where they perform complex acrobatics and tricks like flipping basketballs backwards through hoops with their beaks. They have also been featured on TV (remember “Flipper”?) and in movies. The dolphins’ popularity has been helped by a quirk of anatomy that gives them a permanent grin and makes them seem to laugh when they open their mouths. Of course, their smiles do not really reflect their emotions, but it is an appropriate expression for such playful and affectionate creatures. Trainers at oceanariums know that dolphins have a wonderful sense of humor. On occasion, dolphins near the coasts have even joined human surfers in riding the waves.
Humans and dolphins have had a long friendship that stretches back to prehistoric times. In some parts of the world dolphins cooperate with fishermen by herding fish into reach of the nets. There are countless stories of dolphins rescuing drowning humans, many of them known to be true and others likely mythical (Taras, the son of Neptune, was deposited on the coast of Italy by a dolphin and founded the city of Taranto on that spot.) Dolphins were respected as intelligent beings by the ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, who wrote detailed descriptions of their anatomy, their behavior, and their voices. He told stories of young boys riding on the backs of dolphins, sometimes forming deep and lasting friendships. He even wrote of one dolphin that beached itself and died of grief when its young human friend left.
But some time around 2000 years ago humans lost touch with the dolphins, and the old view of dolphins as people of the sea fell out of fashion. Later writers who had no firsthand experience with dolphins scorned Aristotle’s accounts as pure imagination, and the dolphins were relegated to the status of “just animals.” Only in the last 25 years or so has that view begun to change, largely due to the work of Dr. John C. Lilly.
The Dolphin Brain
Lilly is a neurophysiologist who has spent most of his life studying the dichotomy between the human brain and the human mind, trying to determine whether a valid distinction can be made between the two. He has been fascinated by the question of what makes human beings human, what is the magical quality that sets us apart from other animals. He became interested in dolphins because their brains are comparable in size to ours (unlike the brains of the apes, which are much smaller.) In the mid-fifties he began dissecting dolphin brains in order to compare their structure to that of human brains, hoping to find some key differences which would explain the human’s unique intellect. He didn’t. Instead, he found that not only is the dolphin brain about 20% larger than the human brain, but it is just as complex and highly developed. The brain cells are densely packed and form just as many intricate interconnections.
Many researchers have mapped the brains of humans and various other animals. It turns out that the human brain and the brain of, say, a gorilla are almost the same in the areas that handle sensory information and body movement. The major difference is that in a human the “associational” areas of the brain, devoted to memory, language, and conscious thought, are much larger. The main difference between the human and dolphin brains is also in the associational areas. Only this time, it is the dolphin who has the advantage.
Scientists had long been aware of the large brains of the dolphins but had always assumed that they were of lower quality than human brains, and that in any case, the dolphin’s larger body required a proportionately larger brain to control it. Lilly’s discoveries showed these assumptions to be wrong. The error in the body size argument can also be seen by examining the brains of other animals. For example, the great white shark grows up to 25 feet in length and can weigh up to four tons, versus a dolphin’s 300 or 400 pounds. Both shark and dolphin make their living by swimming around in the ocean catching fish. Yet the shark’s brain is only a fraction the size of the dolphin’s. The shark seems to be about as intelligent as a rat.
Lilly became intrigued by the possibility that dolphins are as intelligent as humans, or even more so. But since dolphins are so very different from us, this immediately raises the question of what exactly we mean by “intelligence.” And that is very difficult to answer. “Intelligence” is one of those words like “love” which everyone uses and thinks they understand, but which nobody can define, much less measure quantitatively. The IQ tests that psychologists devise really measure nothing more than the ability to perform well on IQ tests. This happens to correlate reasonably well with a student’s grade point average in school, but has little to do with the skills needed to succeed in life. It takes an entirely different sort of intelligence to write a symphony, run a business, repair a bicycle, or comfort a frightened child.
The Meaning of Intelligence
Our crude devices for measuring intelligence in ourselves must be totally inappropriate for a species as different from us as the dolphins. We tend to define intelligence in terms of our own capabilities, using a strange kind of circular logic. We begin with the assumption that we are intelligent and other animals are not. To try to explain this difference we look for skills which seem to be exclusively human. Tool-making and the use of language are usually named as such skills. “Aha,” we think, “these are the signs of true intelligence.” Then we look for these capabilities in other animals, and of course find none that can match us. Hence we conclude that they are less intelligent than we. By basing our measurement of animal intelligence on how closely they resemble humans, we naturally find ourselves at the top.
Of all the animals, we identify most closely with the apes mainly because they look more or less like us: they live on land, walk mainly on two legs, and have hands with which to manipulate things. Occasionally they even show some skill at using tools. For these reasons we usually consider the apes to be the next step down from us in intelligence, especially chimpanzees and gorillas. A lot of work has gone into attempts at teaching language to chimpanzees, but with very limited success. This is not too surprising, since a chimpanzee brain is only about 1/4 the size of an adult human brain. Even a human infant, at the stage of development at which language is learned, has a brain 2 or 3 times as large as a chimpanzee’s.
By contrast, very little effort has been spent trying to communicate with the dolphins. This is probably because they are so alien to us that it is hard for us to imagine that they could be intelligent. But it is unreasonable to judge dolphins by human standards because the requirements for life in the sea versus life on the land are obviously very different. The dolphins have no need of clothing or shelter from the weather. They can swim thousands of miles in a few days and hence have no need for artificial means of transportation. They can easily catch fish wherever they go, so food is no problem. On the other hand, breathing is not an unconscious, automatic process for the dolphins as it is for us, since they must rise to the surface to get a fresh lung-full of air. Dolphins cannot sleep or lose consciousness for more than a few minutes at a time or they will drown. They are social animals, travelling in close-knit groups, but their society is not based on technology and specialization as ours is. Dolphins would get low marks on any intelligence test that emphasizes tool use because their bodies are not built for it. They have simple flippers in place of our dextrous little hands with opposable thumbs. But then, they have no need of tools.
Clearly, if we are to measure the intelligence of animals so unlike ourselves we need a more objective measuring rod. The physical size and complexity of the brain could well be such a measure. The problem is that so far nobody has proven that a larger brain necessarily indicates greater intelligence. We know that a gorilla has a larger brain than a muskrat and is also more intelligent (whatever that means.) A human has a still larger brain and is more intelligent than a gorilla. Now we find that dolphins have larger brains than humans. Does that mean they are more intelligent than humans, or does it just mean that an animal with a large brain can still be dumb? Despite John Lilly’s work, most scientists are still waiting to be convinced of the dolphin’s intelligence.
The belief in human superiority over all other animals is deeply ingrained. Scientists religiously avoid anthropomorphizing, or interpreting animal behavior in human terms. Lilly has pointed out that “zoomorphizing” in the case of large-brained animals can be just as misleading. It is certainly true that to some extent you see what you want to see, and if you insist on believing that dolphins are dumb animals, everything they do can be interpreted that way. Even scientists, whose business it is to be totally objective, are often blinded by their own hidden assumptions, egotism, or any number of typical human weaknesses. To overcome this prejudice it will be necessary to find something dolphins can do that will generally be regarded as proof of intelligence. In other words, we need to find some area where the dolphin’s intellectual skills overlap with our own, however unfair that may be to the dolphin.
The use of language holds the most promise as a possible area of overlap. There is no question that dolphins communicate with each other in the oceans, as do the whales. Many observations have been recorded that cannot be interpreted any other way. The experience of a fleet of fishing boats in the Antarctic is one example. When several thousand killer whales began killing fish near the boats, the fishing fleet radioed a nearby whaling fleet for help. Several whaling ships arrived and a single killer whale was harpooned. Within a few minutes all the whales had disappeared from the vicinity of the whaling boats, but they went on feeding near the fishing boats not protected by the whalers. But the whalers and the fishermen were both in the same type of boat, the only difference being the harpoon gun attached to the whaling boats. Somehow the killer whales who witnessed the harpooning were able to describe to the other whales how to distinguish a dangerous whaling boat from a harmless fishing boat.
During World War II the U.S. Navy began to use underwater microphones to listen for enemy submarines. They were amazed to hear a constant babble of chirps, whistles, and moans. Some of the sounds turned out to be the cries of the whales, long and complex songs that are hauntingly beautiful. Previously it had been assumed that whales and dolphins were silent. (Aristotle knew otherwise, of course, but his writings had been ignored.) Since then many recordings have been made of whale songs, some as long as 30 minutes. Careful studies have shown that the songs follow definite patterns, yet they change and new parts are added from time to time.
Many observers have witnessed what can only be described as conversations between dolphins. Two dolphins will face each other and each will speak briefly, then listen intently to the other’s reply, and speak again. They sometimes remain locked in these intense exchanges for some time. John Lilly has found that dolphins isolated in separate tanks will hold conversations over underwater “telephones” wired between the tanks. Jacques Cousteau once came upon a school of dolphins literally sitting on their tails in a circle on the bottom of a shallow pool, apparently engaged in some kind of meeting. Exactly what they were doing is anyone’s guess. Incidents like this demonstrate how little we really know about the activities of dolphins.
Dolphins perceive the world mainly through sound, just as humans are oriented to vision. Their vision is poorer than ours, but their hearing is much more acute. They need such a well-developed sense of hearing because they use a system of sonar navigation just as bats do. They emit clicks and whistles and the returning echoes form an image of their surroundings. This sonar has some interesting side benefits; for instance, it allows the dolphins to “see” within each other’s bodies. They might even be able to send each other the equivalent of 3-dimensional images. Imagine speaking a language in which a short phrase could contain a photographic image of person’s face! The dolphin’s speech and hearing both cover a much wider range than a human’s. Their communication seems to extend from about 500 to 80,000 cycles per second. By contrast, human speech covers only the range from 100 to 5000 cps. Dolphins can hear sounds as high as 200,000 cps. They have several means of producing sound and can independently emit at least three different sounds at once. What this all adds up to is an extremely efficient means of communication. Lilly estimates that dolphins can take in 20 times as much information through their ears as humans can. So they have the physical capability, at least, to use languages much more sophisticated than our own.
So far, though, nobody has been able to figure out what dolphins say to each other. The greatest obstacle to understanding them is that we have no idea how their language is structured. All human languages have some basic characteristics in common: there are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on, strung together according to certain rules of syntax to form meaningful sentences. But a dolphin language might be totally different, maybe without any concept of words as we know them.
Instead of trying to decipher the dolphin’s language, Lilly decided to concentrate his efforts on teaching the dolphins to speak English. He tried various approaches, including an experiment in which an assistant, Margaret Howe, lived for 2 ½ months with a dolphin named Peter in a room flooded with two feet of seawater. Lilly learned a great deal about dolphins during this period but never achieved a very high level of communication with them, and eventually realized that it might be unreasonable to expect dolphins to learn a human language. For one thing, dolphins must stick their heads out of the water to hear a human voice without distortion, and even then it does not sound the same to them as it does to us. Because of their range of hearing they pick up mainly the very high pitched portions of our speech, which is mostly just noise. The lower pitched portions, which carry most of the meaningful information, are harder for them to hear. It is also very difficult for dolphins to produce the sounds that we use in speech, although they can roughly imitate a human voice with their blowholes above water. Finally, it is not easy to hold a dolphin’s interest. They quickly become bored with any repetitive task (as would a human.) And after all, the dolphins did not volunteer for the project. From their point of view, they were kidnapped, taken away from their family and friends, and placed in a tank that amounted to a small prison cell. Lilly decided that it was morally wrong to keep dolphins captive in this way, and he released his dolphins and ended his research in 1968.
What We Are Missing
So we have not yet broken through the communication barrier that separates us from the dolphins. That dolphins could be conscious, intelligent, thinking beings still remains just an interesting possibility even to those people who think about it at all. That is understandable, because most of us only encounter dolphins on rare trips to the zoo. The average human does not have a whole lot in common with a humpback whale. Maybe this isolation between species would not be so terrible except for one thing: we humans are systematically slaughtering the cetaceans. Many species of whales have been hunted almost to extinction. The Greenpeace Foundation and other groups have worked for years to halt the killing, and some species are now protected by international agreements, but others are still being decimated by Soviet and Japanese whalers. The Japanese also slaughter dolphins for food, and dolphin meat is used in canned cat food and dog food all over the world. In addition, thousands of dolphins are inadvertently killed each year by tuna fishermen.
In a way this slaughter is even more tragic because the dolphins and whales are so harmless to us. There are no known instances of any cetacean attacking a human (except for harpooned whales fighting for their lives.) Dolphins will endure horrible indignities like having metal tubes hammered into their skulls and still not attack their human captors. This is not because the dolphins are totally passive animals, either. They do not hesitate to attack and kill giant sharks which threaten them. Even killer whales, which prey on almost anything that moves and which could effortlessly bite a man in half recognize humans and refrain from attacking them. In one case, a man in a 40-foot power boat shot through the dorsal fin of a killer whale (apparently for no particular reason.) The whale turned around and tore open the boat’s hull above the waterline, and then swam away. The man made it back to shore by shifting weight in the boat so as to keep the damaged end above the water. The killer whale could have easily demolished the boat and killed the man, but instead it apparently chose to let him off with a warning. It is as if the whales have a strict code of ethics which forbids killing humans. It is unfortunate that we do not return the honor.
We have no idea what we are destroying when we kill the whales. Lilly chose dolphins for his research because they are easy to work with, but they are by no means the most intelligent of the cetaceans. Killer whales have larger brains, and people who have worked with both dolphins and killer whales in captivity agree that the whales are more intelligent. Some of the larger whales are probably more intelligent still. Sperm whales have brains six times the size of a human brain. What vast stores of knowledge could be held in such a brain! The whales have had large brains for about 30 million years, while human brains evolved to their present size only in the last 200,000 years or so. The whales have no written records but it is conceivable that they have long and detailed histories that are passed down from generation to generation. They may have much to teach us if we can learn to communicate with them before they have all been destroyed (and if they are interested in talking to us!)
A New Approach
Recently John Lilly has become convinced that demonstrating the intelligence of the cetaceans is of overriding importance, even if it means working with captive dolphins. Working under Lilly’s direction and funded by private donations, the Human/Dolphin Foundation has resumed efforts to communicate with the dolphins. This time, instead of teaching the dolphins English, Lilly hopes to develop an intermediate language that can be used by both humans and dolphins with computers as translators. A human operator selects words on a computer keyboard, and the computer generates corresponding high pitched whistles in the dolphin’s hearing range on an underwater speaker. An underwater microphone picks up the dolphin’s response, which the computer shifts down into the human’s hearing range and plays over a second speaker. The two dolphins involved in the project, Joe and Rosie, have begun to learn the vocabulary of this artificial language, but it is too early to predict the outcome of the experiment. So far the communication is still at the level of identifying simple objects like fish and balls. That much has been accomplished with chimpanzees by other researchers. But if we get to the point of arguing philosophy with the dolphins it will be hard to deny their intelligence.
Even if we reach that point, however, it is not likely that all of human society will jump up at once and give equal rights to dolphins. Our civilization is largely based on the assumption that the earth is ours to exploit as we wish. This view is deeply rooted in the Jewish and Christian traditions. It is clearly spelled out in the first chapter of Genesis:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Some of the major religions will obviously have a problem with placing dolphins on an equal footing with humans. Even if a dolphin is intelligent, does that necessarily mean it has a soul? It will be argued that the Bible gives us rulership over all animals, no matter how intelligent they are, because after all, man is the only one created in God’s image.
Despite the debate that continues over the theory of evolution, it has been pretty well absorbed into our society’s beliefs. But that has not changed our basic conceit. We still tend to think of ourselves as the highest pinnacle of evolution. We are certainly different from other animals, quite unique, in fact. But better? Only by our own standards. A coyote would probably see it differently. If there is such a thing as a “highest” form of evolution, certainly it can’t be represented by the one species that is in danger of wiping itself out.
It is easy to be pessimistic about the future relationship between humans and dolphins. Considering all the terrible things humans inflict on each other, including unnecessary famine and genocidal wars, it may be too much to expect that other intelligent species will be treated any better.
The End of Speciesism?
On the other hand, communication with the dolphins could be the first step on the way to a broad new enlightenment. Contact with the dolphins could have an even greater impact on society than contact with an extraterrestrial civilization for the very reason that we share the same planet with the dolphins. Recognition of their rights would mean placing restrictions on our own activities in the oceans. No more killing of whales and dolphins for food. No more dumping of radioactive waste into the sea. No more pollution of the water with oil spills, chemicals, and garbage. In return for our consideration, the whales might teach us a great deal about how to harvest more food from the sea without destroying the ocean environment in the process.
We have confronted the problems of racism and sexism. Now how about speciesism? Many people who work with dolphins have experienced profound changes in their beliefs. Says John Kert, director of research for the Human/Dolphin Foundation, “After a couple of months people go through a transformation in their thinking about dolphins, from thinking about the dolphin as a cute little animal that’s very intelligent to realizing that there’s somebody in there, another being.” To overcome speciesism our entire society will have to undergo that same transformation.
And even that might be only the first step. If dolphins are recognized as intelligent we will surely also have to recognize the intelligence of the cetaceans with even larger brains. And this brings us to a crucial point. Among land mammals there is a fairly continuous progression of brain sizes from the small brain of a mouse to the medium sized brain of a gorilla. From there it is a giant leap to the human brain. It is therefore easy for us to mark a clear division between ourselves and the “lower” animals. But there is no such gap in the cetaceans. There is a constant progression from the small porpoises, with brains about as large as a monkey’s, to the mammoth brain of the sperm whale. So where do we draw the line between intelligent species worthy of being treated as our equals and the lower animals that we treat as our property? Struggling with this question might eventually make us realize that there is no magic dividing line, that not only dolphins, but monkeys, birds, and fish, trees, flowers, and insects, all are part of the living earth and all deserve our respect. For centuries we have subdued the earth and bent it to serve our whims without understanding the consequences. In the last 100 years our skill at effecting changes in our environment has grown at a fantastic rate, and the accidental damage we inflict has increased along with it. Believing ourselves to be the rulers of the planet by divine right we are in danger of destroying it. It is time for us to reach for an understanding of the earth and its cycles, and find our natural place among its incredible variety of inhabitants.
Lilly on Dolphins, by John C. Lilly, 1975
Contains a complete account of the research on dolphins through 1967 written for general audiences, including Margaret Howe’s account of the 21 months when she lived with a dolphin. Also includes “The Dolphin in History” and other scientific works.
Communication Between Man and Dolphin, by John C. Lilly, 1978
General discussion of the importance of and obstacles to communication with the cetaceans. Covers all dolphin research through 1976.