Dolphins and whales are dumber than goldfish and don’t have the know-how to match a rat, new research from South Africa shows. For years, humans have assumed the large brains of dolphins meant the mammals were highly intelligent.
No, we knew dolphins were smart millenia before we ever looked at their brains. The ancient Chinese knew it. Aristotle knew it. And the idea that brain size has anything to do with intelligence is, like, sooo 19th century.
Paul Manger from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, however, says it is not intelligence that created the dolphin super-brain — it’s the cold. To survive underwater, these warm-blooded animals developed brains that have a lot of insulating material — called glia — but not too many neurons, the gray stuff that counts for reasoned thinking.
Wow! Since when are glia “insulating material”? A few years ago, for my Neuroscience class, I had to remember at least 10 functions of glia – not one of them having anything to do with insulation, or even structural support. It’s all about function – neurons and glia work together to process information. Anyway, I will blame this on the stupidity of the reporter as I doubt that anyone with such archaic ideas would ever be allowed to dissect a dolphin and publish a study in a decent journal.
Yet while dolphins aren’t as smart as people tend to think, they are as happy as they seem. Manger said dolphins have a ”huge amount” of serotonin in their brains, which is what he described as ”the happy drug.”
Sure, if you get your science from Cosmo and Glamour. Do I really have to start listing all the functions of serotonin now? Or try to define “happiness” in such simplistic terms that it can be explained with a single chemical?
It is not quite clear, but it appears that Alon Levy agrees with the study. But Lindsay is having none of it. She cites the self-recognition paper as well as some personal testimony of the researcher who did that study. When that paper came out I was teaching a “Readings in Behavioral Biology” graduate seminar and all the neuro faculty showed up for class and tried valiantly to destroy the paper – with no avail. It is good.
Dolphins are darn smart. They play (check this pdf). They have complex communication and complex social interactions.
So, how does this kind of argument ever show up? Because of anthropocentrism. Two types of anthropocentrism, to be precise.
First, the concept of “intelligence” is often defined in human-like terms. If an animal can do stuff we do, it is deeemed smart. If it can be easily trained like our immature offspring can, it is smart. If it can talk, it is smart. If it builds structures, it is smart. BS. Intelligence has to be defined from the vantage point of that species: what makes ecological and evolutionary sense for that species to be able to do. Bees are smarter than ants because they have a more sophisticated ability to orient in space and time, not because they speak English, French and Chinese.
Now, don’t get me wrong now. Since we are intelligent, looking for intelligence in other animals may benefit from comparison to humans. The trouble is, people go for specifics of human capabilities, instead of a general idea what intelligence is.
Writing “Hamlet” is an ecologically relevant ability for humans. It kept old Will fed and clothed for a few months, after which he wrote the next play. Why would an insect need to write theater plays? It is not ecologically relevant to it. It does not aid survival and/or reproduction.
Intelligence is the ability to learn fast and learn a lot of pieces of information relevant to one’s ecology. It is the ability to hold many of those pieces in one’s mind simultaneously, to juggle them and analyse them and notice patterns. It is the ability to play with that information, to get new ideas and test them, to note and remember the results of those tests. It is the ability to use this novel informaiton to invent novel behaviors – doing different stuff at different places at different times. In short, intelligence is the ability to do science! Behavioral flexibility is the hallmark of intelligence – not the specific types of behaviors.
The second anthoropomorphism considers the underlying anatomy. Why should unrelated species of high intelligence have brains similar to us? They evolved their high intelligence at different times, in a different lineage, with different raw materials to work with, and under different ecological pressures, for different purposes.
Many birds are very intelligent – but in their own way. Clarke’s Nutcrackers, African Grey Parrots, pigeons, and most corvids (ravens, crows, jays) are highly intelligent creatures with huge capabilities for episodic memory (remembering spatial and temporal aspects of personal experiences), play, problem-solving, spatial orientation and perhaps even insight (planning for the future). And their brains look nothing like ours.
Octopus is a very smart animal. Its brain looks nothing like ours.
Macs and PCs can do all the same stuff (roughly), but look nothing like each other under the hood. Many kinds of harware can run the same kinds of software and do same kinds of things, so why should brains have to be all built the same way in order to make an animal “intelligent”?
So, leave the dolphins alone, at least until the Startide Rising.
Addendum: I forgot to note that glia are not white matter. Axons are white matter while neuronal bodies are grey matter. Glia surround both. It is the color of Schwann cells (a type of glia) that makes axons look whitish.
Thus, more grey matter means more neurons. More white matters means more connections. What is more important: gazillions of scattered cells, or the complexity of their connections? I’d say connections.
Addendum II: Dave Munger wrote a valid criticism of what I wrote here (and somehow I missed his earlier post on this subject):
I agree that intelligence is tremendously difficult to define, but I’d suggest that the perspective of an individual species is a poor place to start. Based on that notion, every organism can be said to be intelligent, because every organism is highly adapted to its environment. When we say an animal is “intelligent,” we’re defining intelligence from our own perspective: the point is to identify animals that are similar to ourselves.
I’m not sure that the point is to identify animals that are similar to ourselves, but even if it is, similar in what way? The general mental capabilities (that we still need to define) or specific capabilities (which I argued here against)?
As for looking at each species individually, I agree that it is impossible to do it in isolation, but eahc species can be compared with other species in its own group, e.g., birds with birds, insects with insect, and then broader, all with all. If we define, provisionally, intelligence as fast learning, high processing power and flexibility of behavior, then we can compare species without looking at specific items that are learned, specific informaiton that is processed and specific behaviors that are flexible. For some species, being inflexible is a great adaptive trait – doing everything by the pre-programed schedule can work wonderfully for a long period of time. Other species evolve flexibility which allows them to spread on a broader spatial range and perhaps allow them to survive a longer geological time.