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Dolphins are ‘persons’

January 16, 2010

bottnose dolphin - if you own this picture, please let me knowFor most of my adult life I have believed dolphins are ‘persons’. By this I mean that I have held this premise true, without necessarily having the backing of empirical facts.

I didn’t come at this position flippantly. I worked my way through the logic of the academic literature surrounding this subject, but it was still a belief. The science and philosophy had 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.

But, my belief has recently received corroboration, and so I am now confident to say that I know that dolphins are persons.

Next month in San Diego the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science will meet to discuss ‘Intelligence in Dolphins: Ethical and Policy Implications’.

And, as I type, scientists around the world are busily mapping the depth of communities or societies of dolphins, elephants and apes. Some are even looking at parrots and magpies. These scientists are discovering that these animals are engaging in complex social interactions with each other and with their environment. There is a tantalizing realization of cultural transmission of knowledge and skills in these species.

Focusing on dolphins: the last decade of studies into dolphin behaviour have highlighted how similar their communications are to those of humans and that their brains have many key features associated with high intelligence.

Researchers now openly argue that their work shows it is morally unacceptable to keep such intelligent animals in amusement parks or to kill them for food or by accident when fishing.

In 2007, I recorded a whales-online podcast with Dr Lori Marino at Emory University about this subject. She made some valid and quite important points during that interview. 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 a rudimentary symbol-based language created to bridge the communication chasm between us as species. She asserted that it is morally wrong to mistreat them. And, I agreed.

What in fact Marino and her colleague Dr Diana Reiss, of Hunter College of the City University of New York plan to present to the conference is that:

“… the neuroanatomy [of dolphins] provides evidence for psychological continuity between humans and dolphins, and … profound implications for the ethics of human-dolphin interactions.” (Marino); and

“[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” (Reiss).

Meanwhile, other research 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. Lusseau has specifically looked at how the environment in which these animals live shapes their individual societies, and their culture; building a sophisticated understanding of what these animals need to maintain their societies.

These scholars, along with many more, question if this emerging scientific knowledge should influence international policy decisions and ethical considerations of the treatment of dolphins.

The debate is not limited to science. At the same conference Professor Thomas I. White, of Loyola Marymount University will join the science to philosophy.  White states:

“… 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’”.

This week, Philippa Brakes, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, has joined this discussion:

“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 is right. Blinded by the limits of our own imagination, and a nature of ‘self’ that is so strong in humans, some find it difficult to envision another entity with processing capabilities comparable to ours; equal to us in intelligence but with a differently constructed self.

Neither does this emerging science and philosophy fit comfortably into the ‘sustainability’ paradigm which premises all of ‘nature’ as a resource for humans.

Marino and Reiss are right to ask when this science will influence policy. White and Brakes are right to challenge us.

So, we squirm and feel uncomfortable about the implications, even though we know we must face them. Perhaps when we understand just what the implications are we will progress.

Despite our common misuse of the word, ‘person’ is actually simply a legal concept that permits 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, robot, 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 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).

Even without reinforcement from the emerging science, dolphins and other species are already accepted by many sectors of the global community as ‘beyond use’ because of a belief in their inherent value and that ‘using’ them is wrong. In a few cases this belief has already developed into a normative legal right of survival without the need for scientific justification.

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.

Margi Prideaux

Update 24/1/2010: A longer, more detailed version of this article is now posted on openDemocracy.

I welcome anyone wishing to engage in the debate. Could human society adjust to accomodate the recongistion of other persons? Or, do you belive we are the top of the tree?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jacinta T permalink
    January 18, 2010 7:01 pm

    Its complicated. Not your post, but the idea in general.
    I love dolphins, but what would happen to society? So much would have to change.
    I dont know that we could even do it.

  2. AnOpenMind permalink
    January 18, 2010 7:58 pm

    There’s no need to kill these animals for food, or for whaling research or anything else. Only a few small groups of people in Japan and elsewhere that eat them anymore. And the Japanese tradition was created by the US after WWII anyway, so it isn’t even real. Putting them in parks to make us smile is just shallow.

    At the political level, negotiation should probably go along the lines of persuading the Japanese government that maintenance of national pride/”face” rests with cessation of whaling asap. Other than that there wouldn’t be that much impact to the global economy if we banned catching them for amusement parks. Seems the least we can do after everything else we have done to their ocean.

    Jacinta: Society would adapt. We have before and we will continue to in the future.

  3. Paul Blythe permalink
    April 5, 2010 11:24 am

    Prideaux points out: “here is a tantalizing realization of cultural transmission of knowledge and skills in these species.”

    At least a couple decades ago, “morphogenesis” and “morphogenic fields” were proposed as a sort of vibrational data bank built by the cognition of a number of individuals. This idea was given empirical support by “the Hundredth monkey” study.

    A group of scientists studied macaques on one of several islands off the coast of Japan. The monkeys were fed sweet potatoes to augment their diet and one female was taught to wash her sweet potato in the sea. Gradually, others followed her example because unwashed ones were no picnic to eat. At some point, a “critical mass” of monkeys adopted the washing practice, and suddenly monkeys on other totally separate islands began washing their sweet potatoes.

    Another study had two groups of humans, who did not speak Japanese, and were given a memory task. One group memorized a Japanese nursery rhyme and another group were given an equivalent task of memorizing nonsense syllables. You guessed it! The nursery rhyme group “learned” the task quicker.

    To me, it is only a matter of time when we learn inter-species communication and moral dilemmas, here under consideration, today will be one more matter for the history of human naivete.


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