Science: Dolphins Are Actually Not That Smart

Senior Contributor
12.19.13 33 Comments


It’s widely held, in pop culture, that dolphins are really, really smart. After all, they have enormous brains, and their own language, so they’re obviously only held back by not having thumbs, right? Uh, turns out, not so much.

It’s worth noting that the pop cultural view of dolphins as super-smart sea creatures lies almost entirely with one scientist, John Lilly. Lilly did respected scientific work; among other things, he was the guy who figured out how to display brain waves on a television screen, and his work laid much of the foundation for modern neuroprosthetics.

On the other hand, he was also a big proponent of dropping acid and was actually kind of a douche to dolphins. So it’s not really a surprise that much of what he insisted were true about dolphins has been disproven by people who are not stoned to the gills, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Lilly was convinced that the big brain of dolphins—physically larger than the human brain—constituted irrefutable evidence that they are intelligent animals. But modern science suggests that the relationship between the size of an animal’s brain and the complexity of its behavior isn’t as simple as Lilly suggested. If big brains are the key to intelligence, why do crows and ravens, which are (literally) birdbrained, display forms of cognition that rival those of their big-brained dolphin and primate cousins?

As for dolphin “language”, basically they just whistle their names over and over again; there’s no evidence they have any other language capacity, although this is unique, so far, in the animal kingdom. Still, being at a dolphin party is like being locked in a room with Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration and The Todd.

On the bright side, though, dolphins, it turns out, are not rapists. Passive-aggressive douchebags, but there’s no record of forced copulation, so that’s good, at least. The animal kingdom has enough terrifying animal behaviors without “sea-faring underwater rapist” being one of them.

(Image courtesy of pochacco20 on Flickr.)

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