Saturday, February 27, 2010

Are Dolphins Non-Human People?

"Are Dolphins Non-Human People" was one of the questions raised by scientists and philosophers at the meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science). Yes this sounds a little 'tree huggy' even for me, but, upon reading this latest brief in Science I can see the arguments made. This debate couldn't be anymore topical right now with the incident that happened with Shamu at Seaworld in Florida. If dolphins are to be considered as non-human persons then should we be making them do shows and keeping them in captivity?

The first argument of course is the extreme intelligence of dolphins. They (1) have larger brains than humans, (2) have a brain to body weight ratio greater than great apes, and (3) they are the second most encephalized beings on the planet. Encephalisation is the folding of the brain and increases volume and surface area, which has been shown to correlate with intelligence. But intelligence is just one part of the argument. The neocortex of dolphins is very advanced and allows them to problem solve and be self aware, and even have a form of intellect or rational thought. They also have spindle neurons that are involved in emotions, social cognition, and the ability to sense what others are thinking.

Thomas White, a philosopher at Loyola Marymount University, argues that these characteristics makes the dolphin a person, but a non-human person. They are alive, aware of their environment, have emotions, have distinct personalities, exhibit self control, and treat others with respect or ethical consideration. White argues that dolphins tick off all the boxes of what it is to be human. Research on intelligence is still in it's infancy with a lot to discover. But, based on these ideas can we justify putting dolphins in places like Seaworld for our own amusement?

Grimm, D. (2010). Is a Dolphin a Person? Science, 327 (5969), 1070-1071 DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5969.1070-c


  1. Sounds fine to me to treat these animals with same respect as if they were human.
    (But it would be rash to demand of them same behviour as a human would find apt.)

    Similarly, can we justify making children have to go to a school if they are unhappy there?

  2. Well, I'm not sure about the children analogy. If we give birth to children, I think we have inherent authority in what they do.

    I'm curious though what specifically is the checklist of person-ness and how other species line up. It seems like a number of primates come close based on what you list above.

  3. I agree. I was thinking many animals could fit that list. But I put the post up as I thought it was an interesting proposition.

  4. Ok.. keeping children in school is totally irrelevant to keeping a dolphin in captivity. For one, children go to school so that they can become knowledgeable, its in their best interest so they can have a successful life in todays society. Dolphins are unwillingly kept in tanks in which they have to circle 1700 times a day just to exhibit normal swimming range, they have no stimuli so they become extremely bored, they can't explore- they are deprived of using their natural hunting skills when given food which too leads to being extremely bored. Dolphins' daily stress leads to ulcers, or they even commit suicide- let me remind you they are fully self aware. Dolphins are also put in artificial seawater, which eats at their skin with awful infections and even can cause dolphins to become blind. These marine parks and swim programs have no intreats in caring about the dolphins, they solely care about the millions of dollars they make through exploiting these loving creatures, who loose their families, abilities to live normally, and of course their freedom.