Dolphin Intelligence

Coturnix attacks the recent piece of research claiming that dolphin intelligence is vastly overestimated. For example, attacking the main notion of the paper, which is that the dolphin brain has plenty of insulating glia and relatively little cognitive gray matter, he says,

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.

It’s already been dealt with, but I’ll repeat it here: by Coturnix’s own admission, there’re glia, and there’s white matter. White matter plays a support role; glia, at least according to the paper he attacks, insulate.

Now, obviously there’s experiential evidence for dolphin intelligence. I had it in mind when I talked about the paper here for the first time. I know about the mirror test, the tool-making, and the complex play, though apparently the paper reanalyzes the whistles as a fairly simplistic thing rather than a real language.

What Coturnix is really getting at is that putting down cetacean intelligence is based on anthropomorphisms. But anthropomorphism is inevitable, in a way: evidently, we’re looking for intelligence in dolphins rather than investigating scenarios like gravity-based life (as opposed to chemical life).

In fact, the existing evidence of high cetacean intelligence is pretty anthropomorphic. Dolphins communicate more-or-less verbally; hence they’re intelligent. Dolphins use tools; hence they’re intelligent. Dolphins are smart hunters; hence they’re intelligent.

On the other hand, brain data seems pretty objective. We can take into account the difference between the way cetacean brains operate and the way primate brains operate; we can measure neurons and synapses; we can look at information processing. Cognitive data is harder to misinterpret than behavioral data.

12 Responses to Dolphin Intelligence

  1. Bryan says:

    Well, even intelligence, meaning strictly “the ability to aquire and apply knowledge and skills” is anthropomorphic and subjective to a certain extent. I’m sure a hardcore Freeper and I operate on roughly the same level based on cognitive measurements, but our ability to actually aquire and apply knowledge might differ considerably! 🙂

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Well, it’s not entirely anthropomorphic; in principle you can objectively define self-awareness and detect its manifestations. I don’t think it’s possible to determine whether something is self-aware unless it’s at a minimum a chemical lifeform, but that concerns the difficulty of recognizing life more than the difficulty of recognizing intelligence.

  3. SLC says:

    One of the issues which has not been addressed in the discussion is what the bottlenose dolphin uses the big brain for. One of the reasons that bottlenose dolphins are considered less intelligent then humans, even though the two species have approximately equal encephalation indexes, is that a considerable portion of the dolphins brain is reserved for its very elaborate sonar detection system, which is absent in humans. For that reason, the bottlenose dolphin encephalation index would have to be considerably larger then the human index in order for it to be as intelligent as a human.

    One should be cautious in assessing the validity of the Manger study as it is at odds with conventional wisdom. The number of times a study at odds with the conventional wisdom turns out to be right is very small, compared to the number of times it turns out to be wrong. Clearly Manger has raised some issues which point the way to future research in the area.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Dolphins’ encephalization quotient is actually much lower than humans’. Humans’ brains are 2.1% of their mass; bottlenose dolphins’ are 0.9%. Of course this doesn’t matter if dolphins’ brains are somewhat constructed to be more efficient relative to size, but the abundance of glia suggests that in fact, they’re less efficient.

  5. SLC says:

    t seems that Mr. Levy and I are both wrong relstive to the encephalation index for bottlenose dolphins. According to the web site

    the encephalation index for humans is 7 and for dolphins is 5.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Wikipedia says that encephalization quotient is different from brain mass divided by body mass; hence the different stats. The relevant page says it’s usually brain mass divided by the 3/4th or 2/3th power of body mass, presumably in kilograms.

  7. Bryan says:

    Well, it’s not entirely anthropomorphic; in principle you can objectively define self-awareness and detect its manifestations./em>

    My comment was mostly meant as a little joke (who can resist a dig at the Freepers?) but you raise an interesting point. Now, I’m not sure if one can “objectively define self-awareness” as a monolithic concept. You can define and test for various components that constitute self-awareness, but there is an awful lot that’s hard to determine. The way we define self-awareness as humans brings a lot of elements into the fold that the self-awareness of a chimpanzee does not.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    Oh, I’m not suggesting that it’s monolithic. It’s likely what you say it is – a combination of very many different concepts. But overall it’s fairly objective still, even if defining it is hard.

    The dig about Freepers makes the incorrect assumption that we’re the same species. In fact, we’re not. The version I know replaces the last four by “Neanderthals,” “House Republicans,” “Dittoheads,” and “Freepers” in that order, but I couldn’t find it on Google Images.

  9. SLC says:

    Re encephalation index.

    As I understand it, the enchephalation index is defined as the ratio of the brain mass to the expected brain mass (I recall that there is a discussion on this issue in one of Richard Dawkins books). The expected brain mass for most mammels is defined as 1, which is based on a regression line of the ratio of brain mass to body mass. Most mammels lie on or very close to that line, ergo, the ratio of 1. However, there are a few that lie above the line. Thus, for instance, humans have an average brain mass 7 times as large as one would expect from their body mass. Bottlenose dolphins have a brain mass 5 times as large as one would expect from their brain mass. In fact, the enchephalation index for dolphins is apparently larger then for homo erectus (certainly for early erectus, and possibly even for late erectus). It should be noted that this is an average value and that the standard deviation for humans is probably quite large. For instance, the physicist Julian Schwinger, who I knew sligntly, had a very large head on a rather small body. I suspect that his enchapalation index was probably closer to 10.

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