The perspective that whales, dolphins, and other such marine mammals should be afforded "human rights" has surfaced again.

I thought I'd revisit a post I wrote about this several months ago, from the archives, when this first hit the news after the AAAS conference in San Diego. So here's a modified, updated version of the original post.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe blogosphere is all a-twitter with talk of the recent commentary in Science that dolphins should be considered people. Well, sort of people. Non-human people.

On the heels of the incident at SeaWorld in Florida in which a trainer was killed by one of the killer whales, this is especially an important issue to consider.

Frequent commenter Daniel Bassett writes at his blog, Fishschooled:

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?


Figure 1: A non-human person?

To address White's specific arguments: I'm not certain that we can say that dolphins are ethical or moral, by applying our standards of morality to other animals. For example, it is normative for male dolphins to rape female dolphins. Infanticide is also normative in some dolphin populations. How does this bear on dolphin ethics? Does it make them unethical? Certainly by our standards, it might. But we probably shouldn't be applying our morals and ethics to other species. (Some, of course, fail to apply our morals and ethics to our OWN species).

According to the Telegraph, White's newest argument goes something like this:

He said that sperm whales have sonars to find fish that are so powerful that they could permanently deafen others nearby if used at full blast. Yet the whales do not use sonars as weapons, showing what Whitehead called a human-like "sense of morality".

Do we know that sperm whales are *aware* of the potential destructive capacity of their sonar? Do they ever actually use their sonar as a weapon, if threatened? A cursory search through Pubmed doesn't turn anything up. If this is true, that sperm whales don't use their sonar as a weapon, but this is automatic and non-conscious, does it still count as morally right? Does morality necessitate an explicit decision?

And then there's the issue of spindle neurons and emotion. Cetaceans and humans separated in evolution millions of years ago. The function of spindle neurons in our brains and in dolphin brains may be equivalent, but it also may not be. Dolphins have spent millions of years evolving in the oceans, while humans have some millions of years evolving on dry land. Different environments, different selection pressures, different methods of adaptation to certain problems. It is possible that spindle neurons are functionally equivalent in dolphins as in humans, but I don't know if this has been demonstrated yet...but I would love to know if it has.

Dr. Jacopo Annese (remember him? his lab at UCSD is the one who sliced up HM's brain last year) said, "It's a pretty story, but its very speculative...We don't know, even in humans, the relationship between brain structure and function, let alone intelligence." And of course, far less is known about dolphins.

So I'm not quite convinced. I think more and more animals are going to eventually fall into many of these cognitive categories as we figure out better ways of testing them. This is not to say that humans are qualitatively different from non-human animals, nor is this to say that animals shouldn't be afforded some rights. Perhaps they should. Perhaps as more and more animals fall into these categories, they too should be given special protections. But to give them "human" rights or to call them "non-human people" is, I think, ridiculous. Give them "cetacean rights" if that is decided to be the proper course of action.

Instead of placing more and more species into the category of "people," I think we should remember that our species rightly belongs in the category "animals."

Another thing occurs to me, and that is I wonder if this is another example of the fascination that humans have with dolphins and whales. As Lori Marino wrote in 2004 in Current Biology:

...Throughout the ages, an enduring mystique has developed around dolphins. Even today some people continue to impute dolphins with mystical abilities such as extra-sensory perception and, in alternative medicine circles, special healing powers...

Are these arguments simply the latest version of this phenomenon? Here's the full text of the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans. What do you think?

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

Marino, L. (2004). Dolphin cognition. Current Biology, 14 (21) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2004.10.010