AGAINST THE CURRENT
on the Human Perception of Intelligence
By Captain Paul Watson
"What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!"
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet
The human species may not be the paragon of animals as Hamlet
so eloquently described to us. There is another species on this
Earth perhaps more deserving of such lofty praise.
It is ironic that science, in
its pursuit of knowledge, may soon lead us to understand that
we are not what we believe or desire ourselves to be, that we
are not the most knowledgeable life-form on the planet. Biological
science is provoking us to shatter our image of human superiority.
Confronted with new realities, we may be forced to change our
perceptions. For the first time in our history, a small group
of scientists stands on the threshold of communicating with a
non-human intelligence. Probing the oceans instead of deep space,
they are searching for an alternative terrestrial intelligence.
Astronomers devoted to SETI (Search
for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) keep our collective inquisitive
ears tuned for signs of sentience from space. At the same time,
cetologists observe, document, and decipher evidence that points
to a profound intelligence dwelling in the oceans. It is an intelligence
that predates our own evolution as intelligent primates by millions
of years. Furthermore, it is an intelligence that may prove to
be far superior to us in terms of complex associative, linguistic,
and survival abilities. Dr. John Ford's patient monitoring of
the speech of orcas off British Columbia has revealed distinctive
dialects between orca populations, so distinctive that it is
possible to link a captive animal of unknown origin with its
long-lost family in the wild. In the cold waters off Patagonia,
Dr. Roger Payne thrilled the world with his recordings of the
songs of the humpback whale. Behind the aesthetic value of whale
music, Payne's research has revealed fascinating insights into
the complex and highly sophisticated language of whales.
In the realm of zoological study,
no other family of species has had such a profound impact upon
human researchers. A few brilliant researchers have even been
accused of losing their scientific objectivity simply because
their study of cetaceans revealed knowledge about themselves.
"You see," wrote Dr. John Lilly, "what I found
after twelve years of work with dolphins is that the limits are
not in them, the limits are in us. So I had to go away and find
out, who am I? What's this all about?" Dr. Paul Spong, who
came to the study of cetology as a psychologist, found himself
transformed into a devout advocate of dolphin freedom. "I
came to the realization," says Spong, "that at the
same time I was manipulating their (orca) behavior, they were
manipulating my behavior. At the same time I was studying them
and performing experiments on them, they were studying me and
performing experiments on me." Both men have taken to heart
an ice: expressed by novelist Edward Abbey that, "it's not
enough to understand the natural world, the point is to defend
and preserve it."
Other scientists have told me
that they understand this effect that cetaceans have on people
and resist the tendency to become "involved" with their
subjects only from fear of ridicule from other scientists. Knowing
something is so does not mean that others will accept it or even
be open-minded enough to ponder it. Some things are just not
on the table for serious scientific debate, and the idea that
humans are subordinate in intelligence to another species is
one of them.
Ingrained anthropocentric attitudes
dismiss the very idea that a dolphin or whale could be as intelligent
as a human being, or more. In this respect, science is dogmatic
and intransigent, differing little in attitude from the Papal
pronouncement that the Earth could not possibly revolve around
Human imagination can instantly
recognize intelligence in a blob of purple protoplasm or an insectoid
extraterrestrial if it steps from a space ship dressed in a metallic
suit and armed with a fantastic protonplasmodic, negative-charged,
ionic-cell destabilizer-blaster. Dolphins, on the other hand,
just eat fish.
We willingly accept the idea
of intelligence in a lifeform only if the intelligence displayed
is on the same evolutionary wavelength as our own. Technology
automatically indicates intelligence. An absence of technology
translates into an absence of intelligence.
Dolphins and whales do not display
intelligence in a fashion recognizable to this conditioned perception
of what intelligence is, and we are blind to a broader definition
of what intelligence can be.
Evolution molds our projection
of intelligence. Humans evolved as tool-makers, obsessed with
danger and group aggression. This makes it very difficult for
us to comprehend intelligent nonmanipulative beings whose evolutionary
history featured ample food supplies and an absence of fear from
I have observed whales and dolphins
in the wild for forty years, seeing varied and complex behavior
that has displayed a definite pattern of sophisticated social
interactions. They have exhibited discriminatory behavior in
their dealings with us, treating us not like seals fit for prey
but as curious objects to be observed and to be treated with
caution. They can see beyond to the manifest technological power
that we have harnessed, and they can adjust their behavior accordingly.
It is a fact that there has never been a documented attack by
a wild orca on a human being. Perhaps they like us. More likely
they know what we are.
The interpretation of behavior
remains subject to the bias of the observer; one observer can
classify behavior as intelligent, and a second observer will
dismiss the same behavior as instinctive. There is also the tendency
to be anthropomorphic -- to attribute human feelings and motives
to the behavior of nonhumans. Until we can actually talk with
a nonhuman, it is difficult, if not impossible, to do anything
but speculate on what is being thought or perceived. We cannot
even understand with any certainty what a human being from a
different culture, speaking a different language, may be thinking
or perceiving. Even among people of our own culture, language,
class, or academic standing, it is a formidable task to peer
inside the workings of the brain. In this respect all brains
other than our own are alien, and I might venture to add that
the inner workings of our individual brains are still a mystery
to each of us that possess one.
It is a great tragedy for our
development as a species that we have been alone among hominids
for the last thirty thousand years. Imagine Homo neanderthalensis
existing today as a separate intelligent species of hominid primate.
Our perception of the nature of intelligence would be profoundly
Homo neanderthalensis is an example
of a species that possessed both technology and media communication.
This tool maker created haunting images of its experiences and
environment. Some Neanderthal tools, artifacts, and cave art
from the Chatelperonian period have survived and remind us that
we are not the only species capable of material artistic expression.
Neanderthal ivory and bone carvings were used for adornment in
addition to more practical purposes. Symbols carved on antlers
relating to the movement of animals in relationship to the seasons
indicate that Neanderthals had invented "writing,' and carried
a hunting almanac around with them.
I have often heard lectures and
read articles on the art of early humans. Yet seldom have I heard
it said that it was not Homo sapiens alone but Homo neanderthalensis
who also left us that legacy. Another species created something
that we believe we alone created.
We perceive reality based on
how we preconceive it. In other words, we see what we want to
see. Let's take a close look at the anatomy of the brain. This
is an organ that the human organism shares with most species
above the invertebrate order. More specifically, we should look
at the mammalian brain that is an organ composed of three distinct
The foundation of the mammalian
brain is the paleocortex, sometimes called the "reptilian"
or "ancient" brain. The paleocortex segment reflects
the primordial fishamphibian-reptile structure. This basal combination
of nerves is called the rhinic lobe (from the Greek rhinos, for
nose) because it was once believed to be the area that dealt
with the sense of smell. The poorly developed rhinic lobe is
overlaid by the slightly more advanced limbic lobe (from the
Latin limbus, for border). On top of this lobe is overlaid the
third and much larger segment called the supralimbic lobe.
Draped over these three lobes
is a cellular covering called the neocortex, meaning "new
brain." This is the instantly recognizable, fissured, convoluted
layer that envelops the other two more primitive segments. The
neocortex is a bewilderingly complex community of intertwined
axonal and dendritic nerve cells, synapses, and fibers.
The mammalian brain is a complex
layering or lamination of evolutionary processes that reflects
hundreds of millions of years of progressive development. The
billions of electrochemical interactions within this complex
organ define consciousness, awareness, emotion, vision, recognition,
sound, touch, smell, personality, intuition, instinct, and intelligence.
first factor in determining the mammalian stages of development
is the number of brain laminations. The layering of the neocortex
differs greatly between humans and other land animals. The expansion
of the neocortex is always forward. This means that neocortex
development can be used as a fairly accurate indicator of the
evolutionary process of intelligence. We cannot assume, however,
that the determining factor in comparative intelligence is neocortex
mass. The other factors considered in the equation are differentiation,
neural connectivity and complexity, sectional specialization,
and internal structure. All these factors contribute toward interspecial
measurements of intelligence.
Interspecies comparisons focus
on the extent of lamination, the total cortical area, and the
number and depth of neocortex convolutions. In addition, primary
sensory processing relative to problem solving is a significant
indicator; this can be described as associative ability. The
association or connecting of ideas is a measurable skill: a rat's
associative skill is measured at nine to one. This means that
90 percent of the brain is devoted to primary sensory projection,
leaving only 10 percent for associative skills. A cat is one
to one, meaning that half the brain is available for associative
ability. A chimpanzee is one to three, and a human being is one
to nine. We humans need only utilize 10 percent of our brains
to operate our sensory organs. Thus the associative abilities
of a cat are measurably greater than a rat but less than a chimp,
and humans are the highest of all.
Not exactly. The cetacean brain
averages one to twenty-five and can range upward to one to forty.
The reason for this is that the much larger supralimbic lobe
is primarily association cortex. Unlike humans, in cetaceans
sensory and motor function control is spread outside the supralimbic,
leaving more brain area for associative purposes.
Comparisons of synaptic geometry,
dendritic field density, and neural connectivity underscore the
humbling revelation that the cetacean brain is superior to the
human brain. In addition, the centralization and differentiation
of the individual cerebral areas are levels higher than the human
brain. Many of us may remember our lessons from Biology 101.
We were shown illustrations of the brain of a rat, a cat, a chimp,
and a human. We listened as the instructor pointed out the ratio
of brain to body size and the increased convolutions on the neocortex
of the human over the chimp, the cat, the rat. The simplistic
conclusion was an understanding that humans were smarter. Of
course, it was a human demonstration of intelligence, and the
conclusion was arrived at by discrimination based on the selection
of the examples. When the brain model of an orca is inserted
into the picture, the conclusion based on the same factors places
the human brain in second position.
Unfortunately for the pride of
humankind, this simple comparison is elementary compared to a
truly astounding fact: whereas the human brain shares three segments
with all other mammals, the cetacean brain is uniquely different
in its physiology.
Humans have the rhinic, limbic,
and supralimbic, with the neocortex covering the surface of the
supralimbic. However, with cetaceans we see a radical evolutionary
jump with the inclusion of a fourth segment. This is a fourth
cortical lobe, giving a four-fold lamination that is morphologically
the most significant differentiation between cetaceans and all
other cranially evolved mammals, including humans. No other species
has ever had four separate cortical lobes.
This well-developed extra lobar
formation sandwiched between the limbic and supralimbic lobes
is called the paralimbic. Considering neurohistological criteria,
the paralimbic lobe is a continuation of the sensory and motor
areas found in the supralimbic lobe in humans. According to Dr.
Sterling Bunnell, the paralimbic lobe specializes in specific
sensory and motor functions. In humans, the projection areas
for different senses are widely separated from one another, and
the motor area is adjacent to the touch area. For us to make
an integrated perception from sight, sound, and touch, impulses
must travel by long fiber tracts with a great loss of time and
information. The cetacean's paralimbic system makes possible
the very rapid formation of integrated perceptions with a richness
of information unimaginable to us.
Despite Biology 101, brain-to-body
ratio is not an indication of intelligence. If this were so,
the hummingbird would be the world's most intelligent animal.
Brain size in itself, however, is important, and the largest
brains ever developed on this planet belong to whales. More important
is the quality of the brain tissue. With four lobes, greater,
more pronounced neocortex convolutions, and superior size, the
brain of the sperm whale at 9,000 cc or the brain of the orca
at 6,000 cc are the paragons of brain evolution on the Earth.
By contrast, the human brain is 1,300 cc. And by point of interest,
the brain of a Neanderthal was an average 1,500 cc.
Apart from our collective ego
as a species, the idea of an Earthling species more intelligent
than ourselves is difficult to swallow. We measure intelligence
in strictly human terms, based on those abilities that we as
a species excel at. Thus we view hand-to-eye coordination as
a highly intelligent ability. We build things; we make tools
and weapons, manufacture vehicles, and construct buildings. We
use our brains to focus our eyes to guide our hands to force
our environment to conform to our desires or our will. Whales
cannot or do not do any of the things we expect intelligent creatures
to do. They do not build cars or spaceships, nor can they manage
Cetaceans do have built-in abilities
like sonar that put our electronic sonar devices to shame. Sperm
whales have even developed a sonic raygun, so to speak, allowing
them to stun prey from a head filled with spermaceti oil to amplify
and project a sonic blast. However, we expect an intelligent
species to arrive in a spaceship armed with laser rayguns, bearing
gifts of futuristic technologies. This is a fantasy that we can
understand, that we yearn for. For us, technology is intelligence.
Intelligence is not a naked creature swimming freely, eating
fish, and singing in the sea.
The whale is an organic submarine.
A whale may not arrive in a spaceship, but it is itself a living
submersible ship. All of its technology is internal and organic.
We do not accept this. The human understanding of intelligence
is material. The more superior the technology, the more superior
Yet intelligence is relative;
it evolves to fulfill the evolutionary needs of a species. All
successful species are intelligent in accordance with their ecological
position. In this respect, the intelligence of a crocodile or
a whale, an elephant or a human is noncomparable. A complex intelligence
exists within every sentient creature relevant to its needs.
We as humans cannot begin to compare our elaborate intelligence
to the complex intelligence of other creatures whose brains or
nerves are designed for completely different functions in radically
Most modern humans believe that
we are vastly more intelligent compared to our ancestors of 75,000
years ago or even 10,000 years ago. Our technology is proof,
is it not? The fact is that the brain of a person living today
is identical in size and composition to that of our kind from
tens of thousands of years ago. If you were to set Einstein's
brain beside the brain of a cave-dweller of the Paleolithic era,
you would not be able to find a single difference in size or
complexity. Our technology is cumulative, the end product of
millennia of trial and error. It is also exponential, and we
now live in the time of the most rapid exponential growth. Individually,
the average cave-dweller of the past could match the average
citizen today in associative intelligence and would be as capable
of learning. Our intelligence is also cultural, and the vast
amount of information that we have at our disposal lies outside
of ourselves as individuals. Apart from the community, we are
severely limited in understanding or manipulating technologies.
Left to our own resources on an undeveloped island, most of us
would have absolutely no idea how to survive. We do not even
have the knowledge to construct rudimentary stone tools or weapons.
In this respect stone age humans would be our intellectual superiors.
If we look at the comparative
intelligences of species strictly on a morphological basis, judging
all aspects on cortical structural development alone, we can
assign an average associative score relative to human intelligence.
Let's assign the average human brain a score equal to 100. This
is the number we consider average on human Intelligence Quotient
(IQ) tests. Based on associative skills as defined by the physiological
structure of the comparative brains, we will find that a dog
scores about fifteen, and a chimpanzee around thirty-five. These
are scores that are comfortably within our understanding of intelligence.
upon comparisons of cortical structure alone, a sperm whale would
The truth of the matter is that
we know absolutely nothing about what goes on in the brain of
a whale or a dolphin. In our ignorance, we resort to the arrogance
of denial and dismissal. We deny the physiological evidence and
in general we have denied that other animals can think or even
feel. We forget that all mammals have climbed the evolutionary
ladder with us, and some, like the whale, started climbing that
ladder tens of millions of years before we evolved from that
apelike ancestor that we shared with the Neanderthal, the chimp,
and the mountain gorilla.
The whale has evolved in a different
manner, its natural physical abilities giving it little cause
to desire material baggage. The spear was not needed to get food
-- the whale is one of the most efficient hunters in natural
history. The whale's ability to travel, to communicate, to care
for its young, and its complex social systems are all separate
from external material acquisition. Whales have biologically
evolved what we utilize technology to achieve. Technology is
something that the whales have never needed. They contain all
the assets needed for survival and development within their massive
bodies and formidable brains.
Humans are big-brained manipulators.
Cetaceans and elephants are big-brained nonmanipulators. The
hominid brain grew in size from 450 cc to 1,300 cc over a period
of only five million years. Cetaceans had already reached 690
cc in brain size some thirty million years ago and had developed
to their present capacity well before our own evolutionary jump
in brain development.
Another major difference between
the cetacean and human brain is the shape. The cranium of the
whale evolved over millions of years to conform to the need for
streamlined movement through the water. This need has shaped
the brain, making it higher, but shortening the length front-to-back
slightly. And this shape has resulted in a relatively thinner
layering of the cortex that is more than compensated by the much
greater surface area of the neocortex due to the tremendous infolding
of the convolutions. According to Pilleri and Gihr, dolphins,
toothed whales, and primates have the most highly differentiated
brains of all mammals, and Krays and Pilleri showed through electroencephalographical
studies that the Amazon River dolphins have the highest degree
of encephalization, much higher than primates. Construction of
the cortex was found to be equal or superior to primates. Cetaceans
are the most specialized mammalian order on the planet, and we
see intelligence in dozens of species. By contrast, Homo sapiens
are the sole surviving hominid.
Humans may be the paramount tool-makers
of the Earth, but the whale may be our paramount thinker. We
can only imagine how a dolphin perceives the stars, but they
may well do so better than we. Indeed, if the power of such an
awesome brain could be utilized, travel to the stars might have
already been achieved. The mind can travel to realms that rockets
can never reach. Or perhaps they have already discovered that
the ultimate destination of a voyager is to arrive back where
it belongs -- in its own place within the universe. The desire
to travel to the stars could very well be an aberration, a need
within a species that has been ecologically deprived. Intelligent
species here or else where in the universe may have determined
that space travel is not the ultimate expression of intelligence.
It may only be the ultimate expression of technology: technology
and wisdom may be widely diverse expressions of different forms
Intelligence can also be measured
by the ability to live within the bounds of the laws of ecology
-- to live in harmony with one's own ecology and to recognize
the limitations placed on each species by the needs of an ecosystem.
Is the species that dwells peacefully within its habitat with
respect for the rights of other species the one that is inferior?
Or is it the species that wages a holy war against its habitat,
destroying all species that irritate it? What can be said of
a species that reproduces beyond the ability of its habitat to
support it? What do we make of a species that destroys the diversity
that sustains the ecosystem that nourishes it? How is a species
to be judged that fouls its water and poisons its own food?
On the other hand, how is a species
that has lived harmoniously within the boundaries of its ecology
to be judged?
It is an observable fact that
whales and dolphins hold a special place in the hearts of human
beings. We have had an affinity with them for years, recognizing
in them something that it has been difficult to put a finger
upon. What we do know is that they are different from other animals,
apart from them in a manner that suggests a unique quality that
we can intuitively recognize. That quality is intelligence.
Recognizing this quality has
profound moral responsibilities. How can humans continue to slaughter
creatures of an equal or superior intelligence? The path toward
the reality of interspecies communications between cetaceans
and humans may lead us to the recognition that we have been committing
Utilizing the computer technology
of our species in company with the linguistic and associative
skills of cetaceans, we may be able to talk with these beings
some day soon. The key is in understanding the different evolutionary
developments within two completely different brains with uniquely
developed sensory modalities.
Imagine being able to see into
another person's body, being able to see the flow of blood, the
workings of the organs, and the flow of air into the lungs. Cetaceans
can do this through echo-location. A dolphin can see a tumor
inside the body of another dolphin. If an animal is drowning,
this becomes instantly recognizable from being able to "see"
the water filling the lungs. Even more amazing is that emotional
states can be instantly detected. These are species incapable
of deception, whose emotional states are open books to each other.
Such biologically enforced honesty would have radically different
social consequences from our own.
Sight in humans is a space-oriented
distance sense which gives us complex simultaneous information
in the form of analog pictures with poor time discrimination.
By contrast, our auditory sense has poor space perception but
good time discrimination. This results in human languages being
comprised of fairly simple sounds arranged in elaborate temporal
sequences. The cetacean auditory system is primarily spatial,
more like human eyesight, with great diversity of simultaneous
information and poor time discrimination. For this reason, dolphin
language consists of very complex sounds perceived as a unit.
What humans may need hundreds of sounds strung together to communicate,
the dolphin may do in one sound. To understand us, they would
have to slow down their perception of sounds to an incredibly
boring degree. It is for this reason that dolphins respond readily
to music. Human music is more in tune with dolphin speech.
Utilizing their skill at echo-location
with elaborate detailed mental images of what they "see"
through auditory channels, dolphins may be able to recreate and
transmit images to each other. In other words, whereas our language
is analog, cetacean language is digital. With the invention of
the computer, we are now communicating with each other digitally,
and this may be the key to unlocking the doors of perception
into cetacean communication.
The possibilities are fantastic.
Instead of communicating across the vast expanse of space, we
may be able to bridge the chasm between species. But we will
not be able to say that "we come in peace." The tragic
reality is that we will be speaking with species that we have
slaughtered, enslaved, and abused. We can only hope that they
will be forgiving of our ignorance.
If so, the future holds a place
for the exchange of knowledge, the secrets of the seas, alternative
philosophies, and unique and different perspectives. I can envision
the words of the whales translated into books. Instead of just
listening to the music of whale song, we will be able to understand
what the songs convey. This may open up new horizons in literature,
poetry, music, and oceanography.
In return, Moby Dick by Herman
Melville might serve to show the whales that our species has
come a long way toward peace between humankind and whalekind.
The whales will learn the mysteries of the land and will be able
to negotiate the release of members of their families that have
been held captive for human amusement. Perhaps we can convince
them that our species is not uniform in its evolution toward
morality and understanding. If so, we may be able to convince
them that our whalers are aberrations, throwbacks to our more
barbaric origins and a collective embarrassment to our species.
Most importantly, we will learn
the lesson that we cannot presume to judge intelligence based
upon our own preconceptions, prejudice, and cultural biases.
In so doing, we will be able to understand that we share this
Earth with millions of other species, all intelligent in their
own manner, and all equally deserving of the right to dwell in
peace on this planet that we all call our home -- this water
planet with the strange name of Earth.
- ``They say the sea is cold,
but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest,
the most urgent."
-- D.H. Lawrence, Whales Weep Not
Bibliography and Sources:
Bunnell, Sterling. 1974. The
Evolution of Cetacean Intelligence.
Deacon, Terrence W. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution
of Language and the Brain.
Jacobs, Myron.1974. The Whale Brain: Input and Behaviour.
Lawrence, D.H. Whales Weep Not.
Licino, Aldo. "Just Animals? Mammalian Studies Point to
an Anatomical Basis to Intelligence." Mensa Berichten: Mensa
International Journal Extra. June 1996.
Lilly, John. 1961. Man and Dolphin.
Morgane, Peter. 1974. The Whale Brain: The Anatomical Basis of
Pilleri, G. Behaviour Patterns of Some Delphinidae Observed in
the Western Mediterranean.
Sagan, Dr. Carl. 1971.The Cosmic Connections, The Dragons of
Watson, Lyall.1996. Dark Nature: The Nature of Evil.
Some information based on conversations over the last two decades
with Dr. Michael Bigg (orcas), Dr. John Ford (orca dialects),
Dr. Roger Payne (whale communication), and Dr. Paul Spong (orcas).
This article appeared in the
Autumn 1997 issue of Ocean Realm magazine and appears
here by permission.
P.O. Box 2616, Friday Harbor,
WA 98250 (USA) Tel: 360-370-5650 Fax: 360-370-5651
Copyright © 2004 Sea Shepherd
Conservation Society. All rights reserved.