Dolphins are smart. Except that, dolphins may not be so smart, at least not according to one South African researcher who is trying to corner the market on schadenfreude-laced dolphin studies because (and we’re just spitballing here) 1) his entire family was killed by dolphin mercenaries, 2) he’s really, really sick of how smug dolphins are about their intelligence and he wants to remind them that they’ll only ever be as accomplished a species as their tool-averse flippers allow them to be.
I, like any red-blooded American with a secret fear of nature that masquerades as haughty contempt and cynicism, love to make fun of dolphins and all the weirdo humans who’ve decided to fetishize them in ways that are both inappropriate and dangerous. Dolphins are intelligent, wild animals, and if you’ve ever been near one (and if you spent time at the Jersey Shore this summer, you have), you know that they’re a little more cunning than your average mollusk or lamprey. For one thing, dolphins love to fuck with people — they’re curious, and they seem dimly aware that you, as a person bobbing near them, can’t really swim that well.
But I’m just a crazy person on the internet — plenty of non-crazy marine biologists have come to the same conclusion using fancy tools like “the scientific method” or “magic.” The fact that neuroethologist Paul Manger of the University of Witwatersrand dissents from the “dolphins are smart” school of science probably says more about him than it does about dolphin intelligence.
In a recent paper, Manger argues that behavioral studies involving dolphins are flawed, and therefore not informative. The Daily Mail (because of course the Daily Mail) has given Manger the space to speak out against what he thinks is an animal that doesn’t deserve all the credit it gets in the media for being smart. He explains (let’s assume simmering with rage and resentment),
We put them on a pedestal for no reason and projected a lot of our desires and wishes on them. The idea of the exceptionally intelligent dolphin is a myth.
Manger isn’t the only one to criticize popular dolphin worship — a new book called Are Dolphins Really Smart from zoologist Justin Gregg also seeks to unravel some of the prevailing dolphin mythology, though Gregg seems to take a more level-headed approach, pointing out that something like a dolphin language that’s as complex as human language probably doesn’t exist.
That said, Manger takes dolphin contempt to a whole new level, pointing out that dolphins are not smart because…
- Unlike goldfish, which are always trying to escape their fishbowls, dolphins just give up when they get caught in fishing nets.
- Sure, dolphins can do some simple math like distinguishing between the concept of “many” and “few,” but so can yellow mealworms and you don’t see people having mealworm-assisted births, do you? DO YOU?
- There’s evidence that dolphins use sponges as tools, but that evidence is sort of flimsy.
- Dolphins ate Manger’s dissertation when he was in grad school, so fuck them.
So, has Manger’s argument swayed the zoology community? Not really, no. Manger was suspended from his university back in 2006 for questioning the special features of whale brains (basically, the enormity of whale brains has less to do with intelligence and more to do with a high density of gilal cells, which help to keep a whale warm in cold water). Zoologist Karsten Brensing has criticized Manger for compartmentalizing intelligence rather than looking at the whole picture; any one facet of dolphin intelligence can be scrutinized until it seems ordinary, but, taken as a whole, dolphin intelligence is pretty extraordinary. In other words, Brensing told the Mail, “To put it bluntly, most of that [stuff Paul Manger said] is bullshit.”