Whales, Dolphins, and Human Rights

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


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Extremely interesting topic.

"...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."..."

I agree, but (m/b)illions won't. IMHO, the arrogant, self-important nature of humans would be far more likely to allow other 'intelligent' species some of our cherished rights than it would to lower itself to the level of animals.

I think there is no better way to 'flatten the hierarchy' (to borrow a corporate phrase) than to elevate other species to the same importance level as humans, at least from a individual rights and consideration perspective.

Consider the flow-on effects. In aquatic systems, the consideration of the effect on cetaceans would impact the fishing industry, oil & gas, waste disposal, agricultural practices and probably much more. Elevating the protection of one species in the oceans would definitely benefit others.

Terrestrially if cetaceans are elevated, then we may well see some of the great apes elevated too, as you've already pointed out. This would again have a flow on effect, in their ecosystems, to other species.

I think it's a brilliant idea to make whatever changes we can to bring other species closer to "human levels". It could have such a dramatic and positive effect on the world as a whole.

P.S. 'elevate' and its derivatives used very loosely.

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.

Rape and infanticide are also normative in most human societies, just not the particular one we happen to be living in right now. Were the Romans not ethical or moral (to the extent that they should not be considered "people"), because they considered neonatal exposure a perfectly normal and acceptable form of family planning, and regarded combat to the death as an uplifting and civilising form of public entertainment?

Great post. I was just reading about this on the BBC website yesterday while working through a Researching Blogging post of my own. I like your last graph, as it seems did the one other person in the comments here. At the end of the day we are animals. As has also been said above, rape and infanticide are common in many human cultures as well as a host of other nasty business. I happen to think we've socially constructed our opposition to these acts over time (and am happy we did) but that they and all our other instinctive and often violent impulses remain intact.

Wow. This is extremely interesting. I'm not sure if our knowledge of cognition is up to the task of deciding if dolphins could be considered people or not, but I found to thought of "no-human person" intriguing.
Why shouldn't we consider "people" other species that have similar capacities as we do? I think we would be justified in labelling a technological alien race as "people", so why don't apply it to other species in our planet? Maybe in order to be called "people" there has to be some sort of social communication between them and us...

I don't know... but your post has been very thought provoking.

There is also reports of dolphins killing smaller dolphins (for fun?) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZY6nYEq5i4
I do not mean to imply that dolphins are "bad" - I just think they have no morality worth the name. They should be left in peace, of course - but they are not the "mystical & supernice species" that people think they are. They just are what they are.

"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)."

The idea of us taking on the responsibility of applying codes of ethics and or morals to another species seems to me to be going a bit too far.
What at first seems to be a method of affording protection (human rights)to whale dolphins and marine mammals, on closer inspection is just another example of mankind's insistence of controlling all the creatures on the planet. I suggest we leave the whales and dolphins to administer their own codes and morals.

I see a trend that has been going on for a long time. Legally, animals were objects to be used or abused by their owners. This was supported by religions that thought that humans were unique and special. We could think, emote, feel pain (animals just reacted), make tools, etc Many of these differences are now being seen as a matter of degree rather than a qualitative difference. Now there are laws protecting some animals. Barriers to seeing animals sufficiently like people to give them more rights are falling fast.

I have no idea where the line will be drawn, but it is coming.

By Sweetwater Tom (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink

I am a student of Pedagogy in Science of Catolica del Maule University, Talca, Chile and I think that the topic is very interesting, because the dolphins are a good subject for study and research, and I agree with your opinion, as I think that they have a very developed intelligence, so I chose it for homework.
Thank you so much for the information.

By Francisco Cerd… (not verified) on 27 Jul 2010 #permalink

Cetacean intelligence is very interesting.

A brain as complex as ours, for a life of EBM (eating, breeding, migrating).
Also play and art, does that imply thinking? I'd guess so.
No hands, no maths as we know it (huge savant calculations?).
Someone please find the citation, google fails me, is it not the case that whales only conceive when there is going to be enough food in the oceans? Two years later!
A global network of singing whales could easily number crunch all the food-flow.
Nowadays, with all the noise pollution and overwhaling, I doubt they can pull it off any more.
We should ease off a bit, let them breed and eat and get up to Leviathan size. We'll need them to keep us going through the next Ice Age.
We couldn't catch the big ones last time we had an ice age. That was our dream. Remember?
Wales, whales, wails, wayalls, wells.... sorry, old prof dozed off there.
Then we get up to 11 billion, 500 million ton of human, just to thumb our noses at the krill, and we start building a spaceship the size of a asteroid, with whales inside..

One the back of an envelope somewhere, I've worked out how much earth we've moved per person over the last 11,000 years and assume conservatively we can out-perform our ancestors somewhat.

We have approximately 100 million years before our Star shines too hot and earth becomes uninhabitable. Some of us will need to reach Andromeda before she merges with the Milky Way, to avoid becoming a feast for the Spider Elves. They're evolving behind us, but if we wait, they'll be totally inedible by the time we bump into them.

I cannot be immortal. But we