Friday, January 8, 2010

The Ethics of Human-Dolphin Interaction

Scientists say dolphins should be treated as 'non-human persons'

Dolphins have been declared the world’s second most intelligent creatures after humans, with scientists suggesting they are so bright that they should be treated as “non-human persons”. Studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.

Studies into dolphin behaviour have highlighted how similar their communications are to those of humans and that they are brighter than chimpanzees. These have been backed up by anatomical research showing that dolphin brains have many key features associated with high intelligence.
The researchers 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. Some 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die in this way each year.

“Many dolphin brains are larger than our own and second in mass only to the human brain when corrected for body size,” said Lori Marino, a zoologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who has used magnetic resonance imaging scans to map the brains of dolphin species. “The neuro-anatomy suggests psychological continuity between humans and dolphins, and has profound implications for the ethics of human-dolphin interactions,” she added.
Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, has written a series of academic studies suggesting dolphins should have rights. “The scientific research suggests that dolphins are ‘non-human persons’ who qualify for moral standing as individuals,” he said.

Dolphins have long been recognized as among the most intelligent of animals. But many researchers had placed them below chimps, which some studies have found can reach the intelligence levels of three-year-old children. Recently, however, a series of behavioural studies has suggested that dolphins, especially species such as the bottlenose, could be the brighter of the two. The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.

It has also become clear that they are “cultural” animals, meaning that new types of behaviour can quickly be picked up by one dolphin from another.
Studies show that bottlenose dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror and use the mirror reflection to inspect various parts of their bodies, an ability that had been thought limited to humans and great apes. There are many similar examples, such as the way dolphins living off Western Australia learned to hold sponges over their snouts to protect themselves when searching for spiny fish on the ocean floor.

Other research has shown dolphins can solve difficult problems, while those living in the wild co-operate in ways that imply complex social structures and a high level of emotional sophistication.

It has been found that captive dolphins also have the ability to learn a rudimentary symbol-based language.


Joanne said...

Dolphins are also better-natured than chimps--and possibly better-natured than humans. I've never heard of a dolphin attacking anyone, while chimps are unpredictable and often violent. We need to learn the dolphin language, or some way to communicate.

Ramey Channell said...

I totally agree. Animal behaviorists are always trying to teach Dolphins the English language, with some success. Perhaps we should try to learn to communicate with them on their own terms and with their own methods.