12 April 2011

Dolphins Are People, Too

The recent opening of the Georgia Aquarium's AT&T Dolphin Tales show has raised accompanying concerns about the captivity of dolphins and other cetaceans (marine mammals such as dolphins and whales). Defenders of the exhibit tout its educational benefits, while opponents cite studies demonstrating minimal educational results for attendees and argue that such exhibits are blatant exploitations of the captive dolphins for profit motives.

Research has shown the negative effects of captivity on dolphins, including higher incidents of many stress-related diseases, and there is at least one documented death of a captive dolphin while attempting to perform an aerial maneuver and colliding with another dolphin.

However, one critical element is missing from all of these arguments, that being the status of dolphins themselves. By “status” I'm referring to the concept of “personhood” in philosophy and law, a status that we previously reserved for human beings.

“But wait,” you object, “dolphins are just animals.” True enough, but so are we all animals by nature. What distinguishes us from other animals is not a distinction of kind, but of degree.

We consider our species to be “persons” because of our superior intelligence, our self-awareness, our ability to communicate using symbolic language, and our capacities for moral responsibility and empathy. “Mere” animals, we believe, don't meet these high standards for personhood. But let's take a minute to evaluate dolphins on these criteria.

·       Dolphins have an incredibly high encephalization quotient (EQ - a ratio of brain mass to overall body mass), roughly 4.0-4.5. This is twice as high as chimpanzees and is second only to humans (roughly 7.0).
·       Dolphins have shown the ability to understand symbolic language and syntax.
·       Dolphins have met many tests of self-awareness (including the classic “mirror self-recognition” test), and some research suggests that they even call each other by name (via “signature whistles”). They also have complex societal structures.
·       Dolphins have often assisted other marine mammals and humans in distress, even at peril to themselves, demonstrating the moral capacity for selfless and altruistic behavior.

In short, dolphins have shown almost all of the characteristics we ascribe to our own species to defend our uniqueness. If they lived on land and had arms and legs instead of fins (none of which is an essential element of personhood from either an ethical or a legal perspective), would we feel justified in locking them up in captive displays for our entertainment and education?

Or imagine this scenario: A race of extraterrestrial aliens visits Earth. We can't understand their language, but we know they're intelligent and have observable emotions and morality. They also happen to be very cute and have the ability to perform great feats of physical agility. Would it really be acceptable to lock them up in cages and say we're doing so for their own benefit?

Of course not. But that's what we do with dolphins, who in effect are non-terrestrial (living, as they do, in our planet's oceans rather than on land) alien intelligent beings among us.

The only remaining basis for the distinct personhood of humans over and above dolphins is an appeal to outdated, inaccurate, and indefensible theological claims that we humans are a special creation, separate and apart from the rest of the natural world and at the pinnacle of some preconceived scale of nature.

It is time to end this fallacy, time for we humans to evolve beyond those outmoded concepts, and time to end the ethical travesty of dolphin captivity.

To close with a lighter touch, consider these insightful words from the late science fiction writer Douglas Adams:

“[M]an had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.”

© Dan Browning 2011. All rights reserved. Permission granted to link to this post.

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